Corruption trial for Assad uncle begins in Paris

Rifaat al-Assad built a French property empire with stolen Syrian state funds, prosecutors allege.

    Rifaat al-Assad amassed a huge property empire after being exiled from Syria [File: Michel Euler/AP]
    Rifaat al-Assad amassed a huge property empire after being exiled from Syria [File: Michel Euler/AP]

    The uncle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad avoided court on Monday with the 82-year-old's lawyers saying he was too ill to attend his trial.

    Rifaat al-Assad is facing charges of illegally using Syrian state resources to build a French property empire.

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    "His doctors have recommended that he avoids all stressful situations," lawyer Pierre Cornut-Gentille told the court in Paris, the French capital.

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

    This year, an investigating magistrate ordered he stand trial on charges of organised money laundering related to his 90 million euro ($99.5m) property portfolio in France.

    Rifaat is the younger brother of former president Hafez al-Assad, the current president's father. The trial is scheduled to last until December 18.

    It concerns crimes allegedly committed between 1984 and 2016, including aggravated tax fraud and misappropriation of Syrian funds.

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

    Huge portfolio

    Formerly Syria's vice president, Assad left his home country in 1984 after mounting a failed coup against his brother Hafez, who led Syria from 1971 to 2000.

    After he arrived in Europe, Rifaat al-Assad's lavish lifestyle, four wives, and 16 children soon raised eyebrows.

    His reported French fortune includes two Paris townhouses, one measuring 3,000 square metres (32,000 square feet), as well as a stud farm, a chateau and 7,300 square metres (78,600 square feet) of office space in Lyon.

    He and his family also built up a huge portfolio of 507 properties in Spain, valued at around $770m, Spanish legal documents show. All his properties in that country were seized by the authorities in 2017.

    Assad has maintained that his 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 $25m between 1984 and 2010, French investigators registered transfers of only $10m from Saudi Arabia.

    This is only the second trial of a foreign dignitary in France on charges related to "ill-gotten gains".

    The first, Equatorial Guinea vice president Teodorin Obiang, received a three-year suspended jail term in October 2017 after being convicted of using public money to fund a jet-set lifestyle in Paris.

    SOURCE: News agencies