Blida, Algeria - Defendants in Algeria's largest ever corruption scandal were sentenced to up to 15 years in prison on Wednesday as prosecutors demanded life for exiled bank chief Rafik Khalifa.

A decision on 40-year-old tycoon, exiled in London since 2003 when hundreds of millions of dollars was discovered missing from the Khalifa Bank, will be taken on Thursday, lawyers said. Algeria is trying to extradite Khalifa.

Life sentences have also been sought for nine other suspects being tried in absentia in the case, including a former Algerian government minister and the ex-governor of the Bank of Algeria.

Khalifa, the son of a former minister, was arrested by British police on suspicion of money-laundering in February and given bail. He was questioned on Tuesday before being bailed again until May 22.

But even without the main defendant, the judge sentenced 15 others who were present at the trial to jail terms of between 10 and 15 years, despite prosecution calls for terms of up to 20 years.

The largest sentence went to Djamel Guellimi, former head of Khalifa-TV and deputy chief executive of the Khalifa Bank, who was given a 15-year term and fined one-million dinars (about R97 000)

Youcef Akli, the top official at Khalifa Bank, Algeria's first privately owned bank, was given 10 years in jail and also slapped with a one-million-dinar fine.

His lawyer, Khaled Bourayou, told AFP his client's sentence was harsh.

"The value of this trial can only be realised if those responsible at all levels of the financial scandal are brought to justice," he added, without naming anyone.

The 10-week trial, which saw ministers, trade union leaders and the heads of public companies testify for the first time in Algerian history, revealed a system riddled with corruption and incompetence at the highest levels.

The defence team blamed the lax supervision by the authorities and in particular the Bank of Algeria for the scandal, saying that without this, Khalifa would never have been able to build up his empire.

In statements to the press, Khalifa himself blamed the collapse of the group, which grew to employ 20 000 staff within five years, on a "state matter", without giving any further explanation.

However, most of the defendants said they were following Khalifa's orders, portraying him as an autocratic boss who always had his way.

Investigations into other parts of Khalifa's business empire, which included an airline and two television channels, are expected to come to trial at a later date.

Among those for whom the prosecution were seeking life terms were former industry minister Abdennour Keramane, his brother Abdelwahab Keramane ex-governor of the Bank of Algeria, and their daughter and niece Yasmine, a former representative for Khalifa Airways.