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Assad's uncle charged with corruption in Paris

Picture taken in 1984 shows late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad (R) with Rifaat (L) [Getty]

Date of publication: 28 June, 2016

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Rifaat al-Assad, uncle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has been charged with corruption in Paris.

Paris prosecutors have charged the uncle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with corruption.

Rifaat al-Assad, 78, who commanded Syria's notorious internal security forces in the 1970s and early 1980s, was charged on June 9 with receiving embezzled funds and tax fraud, the source told AFP.

In the probe, headed by prominent political graft buster Renaud van Ruymbeke, investigators estimated that Rifaat and his family amassed 90 million euros ($100 million) worth of real estate in France, mainly through companies registered in Luxembourg, between 1984 and 1988.

The properties include a chateau and stud farm north of Paris, two mansions, two apartment blocks and a plot of land in the French capital as well as offices in southern Lyon.

Rifaat, who has four wives, told investigators he "had nothing" when he left Syria, having always given his wages away to the poor, according to a source close to the investigation.

Rifaat has been ordered to remain in France except for travel to Britain for medical treatment, according to Sherpa, an activist group that represents victims of financial crime and lodged complaints against him in 2013 and 2014.

Rifaat headed Syria's notorious internal security forces at the time of the 1982 Hama massacre, which crushed a Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising, and killed between 10,000 and 25,000 civilians, according to Amnesty International.

He denies responsibility for the massacre.

He was forced into exile in 1984 for trying to overthrow his older brother, the late Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad.

Then French president Francois Mitterrand invited Rifaat to France, awarding him the Legion d'Honneur two years later.

French investigators have told AFP that Rifaat has since divided his time between homes in Paris, London and the southern Spanish resort city of Marbella.

Sherpa claims Rifaat's fortune was stolen during his time at the heart of the Syrian regime.

Syrian foreign minister Abdel Halim Khaddam, who also resides in France, told investigators that Hafez al-Assad gave his brother some $300 million in 1984 to get rid of him.

Of that, $100 million was in the form of a loan from the Libyan government, a source close to the probe told AFP.

Saudi interest questioned 

The Assad family claims the fortune was the result of gifts from wealthy Saudi supporters, including former king Abdullah, with whom he shared a love of horse-racing.

Van Ruymbeke, whose high-profile cases have included the tax fraud trial of France's former budget minister Jerome Cahuzac, has said Rifaat has provided proof only of a $10 million gift from Abdullah in 1984, the source told AFP.

Rifaat's 43-year-old son, Soumar al-Assad, told investigators last year that the stud farm was a gift from the late Abdullah.

Rifaat claims he invested these gifts in property, but did not keep a close eye on the details.

"I only occupy myself with politics," he was quoted as saying. "They bring me papers to sign... I don't know how to pay, even in restaurants."

Other members of the family have given evidence that Saudi backers have supported them ever since their exile.

However, Syria expert Fabrice Balanche told the probe he is highly sceptical of the explanations.

"Saudi Arabia has no interest in supporting Rifaat, who doesn't represent anything," he said.

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