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France to try Syrian President Assad's uncle on money laundering charges

A raid targeting assets of the family of Bashar al-Assad in Marbella in April 2017[AFP/Getty]

Date of publication: 18 April, 2019

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Rifaat al-Assad, dubbed the 'Butcher of Hama' for allegedly commanding troops that put down an uprising in Syria in 1982, has been under investigation in France since 2014.

The uncle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is to stand trial in France on charges of building up a property empire in the country using funds from Syrian state coffers, legal sources said Wednesday.

An investigating magistrate ordered Rifaat al-Assad - the older brother of the late Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad - to stand trial for organised money laundering in building the 90 million euro ($102 million) property portfolio in France, according to a trial order seen by AFP. The trial date has not been set.

Rifaat al-Assad, dubbed the "Butcher of Hama" for allegedly commanding troops that put down an uprising in central Syria in 1982, has been under investigation in France since 2014.

Casualty estimates from the Hama uprising are between 10,000 and 40,000 dead.

In a written decision dated 8 March, seen by AFP, the office of the financial crimes prosecutor called for Assad to stand trial for laundering the proceeds of aggravated tax fraud, embezzling Syrian state funds, and failing to register French security and cleaning staff.

Assad, who splits his time between France and the UK, denies the charges.

Formerly Syria's vice-president, Rifaat Assad left Syria in 1984 after mounting a failed coup against his brother Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father who led Syria from 1971 to 2000.

After he arrived in Europe, his lavish lifestyle, four wives, and 16 children soon raised eyebrows.

$110 million fortune 

Assad's reported French fortune includes two Paris townhouses, one measuring 3,000 square metres (32,000 square feet), as well as a stud farm and a chateau, and 7,300 square metres (79,000 square feet) of office space in Lyon.

Most of that was bought in the 1980s through offshore companies in Panama, Curacao, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg.

In France alone, his fortune has been valued at 90 million euros ($110 million). Most of the assets have been sequestered.

Assad and his family also own more than 500 properties in Spain worth around 690 million euros. These were seized by authorities in 2017.

Assad has maintained that his lavish lifestyle was made possible by gifts from the Saudi royal family that amounted to more than a million dollars per month.

But despite documents from Assad's lawyers meant to justify gifts of almost 25 million dollars between 1984 and 2010, the French magistrate registered only a transfer of 10 million dollars from Saudi Arabia.

The Syria war began when the Baath regime, in power since 1963 and led by Assad, responded with military force to 2011 peaceful protests demanding democratic reforms.

According to independent monitors, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed in the war, mostly by the regime and its powerful allies, and millions have been displaced both inside and outside of Syria.

The brutal tactics pursued mainly by the regime, which have included the use of chemical weapons, sieges, mass executions and torture against civilians have led to war crimes investigations.

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