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Ex-Centerra CEO remains in Bulgarian limbo as extradition hearing delayed

Len Homeniuk was picked up in July while on holiday in Bulgaria after Kyrgyzstan put him on Interpol’s wanted list, alleging he was involved in “corruption” while at the helm of Centerra.

Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

Former Centerra Gold Inc. chief executive officer Len Homeniuk, who was arrested by Bulgarian border police in July at the request of Kyrgyzstani authorities, is now expected to remain in limbo under house arrest in Bulgaria with his wife until at least Oct. 7.

Toronto-based Centerra operates the massive Kumtor gold mine in Kyrgyzstan and is locked in contentious talks with the government there over the country's stake in the mine, which the former Soviet republic has in the past threatened to nationalize.

The 68-year-old Mr. Homeniuk, a Canadian-U.S. dual citizen who lives in California, retired as CEO in 2008. He was picked up in late July while on holiday with his family on a boat cruise on the Danube after Kyrgyzstan last year put him on Interpol's wanted list, alleging he was involved in "corruption" while at the helm of Centerra. Mr. Homeniuk and Centerra dismiss the allegations as baseless, and Mr. Homeniuk says the allegations are nothing more than an attempt to pressure Centerra in the current talks.

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In a phone interview, Mr. Homeniuk said on Monday a Bulgarian extradition hearing that had been scheduled for Wednesday has now been put off until Oct. 7. He said Kyrgyzstani officials had failed to provide the Bulgarian court with information about the country's statute of limitations law and submitted their documents in Russian instead of Bulgarian, causing his hearing to be postponed.

"I am really disappointed. I think the Bulgarian system has collapsed and [the Bulgarians] have given the Kyrgyz every advantage they possibly can," Mr. Homeniuk said.

Mr. Homeniuk, who now sits on the board of Polymetal International PLC, a London- and Moscow-listed Russian gold and silver miner, said his lawyers were going to apply to get him out on bail.

But he was not optimistic he would be able to leave the apartment in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia where he is now spending his house arrest, although he is allowed daily visits to a hospital for physiotherapy. Diplomats from both Canada and the United States have been monitoring his case. He said the Kyrgyzstani statute of limitations that applies to his case is 10 years and so has expired, since the allegations relate to transactions from 2003-04, when the company was spun off from Saskatoon-based parent Cameco Corp. Kyrgyzstan recently changed its statute of limitations, he said, but the amendments are not retroactive.

Mr. Homeniuk, who started working in Kyrgyzstan in 1992, denies that any of the transactions associated with the spinning off of Centerra were illegal and says his company had strict controls in place to comply with U.S. anti-bribery laws.

He said Centerra could afford to refuse requests from corrupt officials because the mine accounts for such a large proportion of the country's economy. (It represents 23 per cent of its total industrial output and is Kyrgyzstan's single largest taxpayer.)

"When I did work in the Kyrgyz Republic, I loved it there, I loved the people. We did everything we could to try and help them. We created 5,000 jobs," he said. "They're just applying pressure to Centerra right now."

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Mr. Homeniuk said he has been told that no European Union country has ever extradited anyone to Kyrgyzstan, because of the Central Asian nation's poor human-rights record and reputation for corruption. Bulgaria, an EU member, has no extradition treaty with Kyrgyzstan.

"I personally do not know why the Bulgarian court is being taken in by them [Kyrgyzstan], considering [Bulgaria is] a European country and they should very well realize that Kyrgyzstan is, in my view, a failed nation and is trying desperately to nationalize the Kumtor mine," Mr. Homeniuk said. "And that's what this is all about."

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