By Jean-Francois and Rosnoblet
AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France (Reuters) - Dissident Kazakh Mukhtar Ablyazov, accused of embezzling up to $6 billion from his former bank BTA, should be extradited from France to Ukraine or Russia, a French court ruled on Thursday.
Ablyazov, 50, who had been in hiding since being sentenced to prison for contempt of court by an English judge 18 months ago, was arrested near the Riviera resort of Cannes last July and has been in custody since.
Kazakhstan, which wants to put him on trial, has no extradition treaty with France. However, both Ukraine and Russia have requested his extradition.
The court said it preferred he be extradited to Russia on the grounds that the alleged financial losses in the case were much larger there than in Ukraine.
Ablyazov's wife Alma Shalabayeva said after the court's ruling that her husband was wanted by Kazakhstan because "he is fighting the ferocious regime" in his native country.
"For my husband, extradition amounts to a death sentence," Shalabayeva said in a statement. "If he is extradited, he will never see me and our four children."
His lawyer Olivier Quesneau said he would appeal against the decision to halt the extradition process for about a year.
"French justice is not doing itself an honor. Either it's very naive about states widely recognized as corrupt or it (the ruling) is a sign of the political powers' sway over the court," another one of his lawyers, Bruno Rebstock, said.
Ablyazov is accused of having embezzled the money from BTA, the Kazakh bank he once controlled but which was seized by Kazakh authorities and declared insolvent in 2009. Prosecutors said he made loans to front companies which he controlled and which were never paid back.
Russia and Kazakhstan are close political, military and economic partners. Ablyazov's supporters have voiced concerns that Russia could hand him over to Kazakhstan after his extradition by France.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, a 73-year-old former steelworker, has ruled Central Asia's largest economy for more than two decades.
He has overseen market reforms and massive foreign investment in his oil-rich nation of 17 million, whose area is about five times the size of France. However, he tolerates little dissent and his party controls the docile legislature.
The Kazakh Foreign Ministry and president's office both declined to comment on the ruling and the prosecutor-general's office was not immediately available for comment.
BTA welcomed the ruling in a statement, saying that the decision would help recover billions of euros it accused Ablyasov of misappropriating.
Ablyazov, a former minister, said during the hearing the allegations against him were fabricated and designed to eliminate him as an opponent to Nazarbayev.
Ablyazov was granted political asylum by Britain after he moved there in 2009, but he fled London last year after being sentenced to 22 months in prison for contempt of court.
Italy welcomed back his wife last month after being expelled from the country, where she had been living.
The case created an uproar in Italy, where opposition politicians and the press accused the government of disregarding normal judicial and diplomatic procedures to please Kazakhstan.
(Reporting by Jean-Francois Rosnoblet; Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov in Almaty; Writing by Leigh Thomas; Editing by Paul Taylor and Alison Williams)