PARIS -- French judges ruled Thursday that a Kazakh billionaire and dissident accused of embezzling up to $6 billion in what is believed to be one of the world's largest fraud cases should be extradited to Russia or Ukraine.
Both countries have demanded that Mukhtar Ablyazov, the former chief of Kazakhstan's BTA bank and a onetime government minister, be handed over to them to face charges of siphoning off bank funds between 2005 and 2009.
Ablyazov, 50, denies the fraud allegations and claims he is the victim of political score settling after funding a pro-democracy party opposed to Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
In 2009, he fled to London, where he later received political asylum. But he left Britain in 2012 and went into hiding after a judge there gave him a 22-month prison sentence for refusing to disclose his personal assets.
The judge in the London case, Nigel Teare, said Ablyazov was accused of "fraud on an epic scale" and was in "serious" and "brazen" contempt of court in trying to hide nearly $56 million in assets from bank creditors. Teare said the tycoon had used the BTA bank "as if it were his own private source of funds."
Ablyazov's lawyers said he fled Britain after receiving a death threat.
British private detectives hired by the bank tracked him down to a heavily guarded luxury villa near Cannes, on the French Riviera, and notified the authorities.
Last July, French gendarmes thought they had their man when they stopped what appeared to be a gardeners' van leaving the property. When they discovered that the gardeners were genuine, the heavily armed officers swapped clothes with them and drove back into the property, past the security gates and cameras.
They found Ablyazov sitting at his computer, unaware that his home had been penetrated.
His supporters say Ukraine and Russia are acting as the "long arm" of Kazakhstan and that both countries will hand Ablyazov over to Kazakhstan, where, they warn, he faces torture and imprisonment without trial.
However, French prosecutor Solange Legras, who called for the extradition, told the court in
Aix-en-Provence that Ablyazov should be seen as a "grand-scale criminal" and not as a political dissident.
On Thursday, the French court agreed and ruled that Ablyazov should be extradited to Ukraine or Russia, with a preference for Russia. He is accused of embezzling $5 billion in bank funds in Russia and $400 million in Ukraine. Kazakhstan does not have an extradition treaty with France.
Ablyazov's lawyers said they would appeal what they called a flawed decision.
Peter Sahlas, a lawyer who represents Ablyazov's family, told journalists that the French ruling put the businessman's life in danger.
"This court wants to send Ablyazov, a refugee, straight to the very people he should be protected from," Sahlas said.
"All human rights groups warn against his extradition over fears he will be tortured. Ultimately he will be sent to Kazakhstan and mistreated. He will not be able to get a fair trial -- he will be tortured in Kazakhstan; he will be tortured in Ukraine; he will be tortured in Russia."
Alma Shalabayeva, Ablyazov's wife, issued a statement after the court's decision.
"For my husband, extradition is a death sentence. If he is extradited, he will never see me, or our four children, ever again," it said.
Last year, Shalabayeva and the couple's 6-year-old daughter, Alua, were arrested in Rome and deported to Kazakhstan. The hasty expulsion caused a scandal after it was reported that the Italian authorities had acted under pressure from Kazakhstan, and the Italian Interior Ministry's chief of staff resigned. The family returned to Rome last month with the assistance of the Italian authorities.