By Matthias Galante
NICE, France (Reuters) - A French judge placed Russian tycoon Suleiman Kerimov back under formal investigation on suspicion of complicity in aggravated tax fraud, the prosecutor in the southern city of Nice said on Wednesday.
French investigators allege that Kerimov, whose family controls Russia's largest gold producer Polyus, deceived the tax man over the true price of luxury villas purchased on the Riviera to avoid taxes in France.
Kerimov strongly denied any wrongdoing and will launch an appeal, his lawyers said in a statement to Reuters.
The judge's move to place Kerimov under formal investigation means he becomes a formal suspect but such investigations can be dropped without going to trial.
Kerimov's defence team said in their statement he considered the new investigation harassment. They also told Reuters that Kerimov had returned to Russia after appearing before judges on Tuesday. Kerimov sits in the upper house of Russia's Parliament as a representative of Dagestan.
Prosecutor Jean-Michel Prêtre said Kerimov had paid bail of 20 million euros (£17.16 million).
In June, 2018, a French appeals court dropped charges of laundering the proceeds of tax evasion against Kerimov.
The new allegations of tax fraud complicity against Kerimov would represent a lesser charge should the case proceed to trial. The prosecutor did not say why a lesser charge was being pursued this time around.
The court in June cited the so-called "Bercy lock" that gives the French finance ministry the power to settle cases of aggravated tax fraud through direct negotiations and prevents the judiciary intervening without the ministry's blessing.
Lawmakers abolished the 'Bercy lock' in September last year.
(Reporting by Matthias Galante and Emmanuel Jarry; Writing by Julie Carriat; Editing by Richard Lough and Jane Merriman)