France sentences Syrian leader’s uncle to four years in prison

Paris court finds Rifaat al-Assad guilty of acquiring French property using funds diverted from the Syrian state.

Rifaat al-Assad
Rifaat al-Assad is the exiled brother of Syria's late president Hafez al-Assad [File: Michel Euler/AP]

A Paris court has sentenced the 82-year-old uncle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to four years in prison and ordered the confiscation of all his property in France as well as one of his London properties.

Wednesday’s ruling came in a trial that found Rifaat al-Assad guilty of acquiring millions of euros worth of French property using funds diverted from the Syrian state.

According to the ruling, the younger brother of late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad – father of the incumbent president – committed the crimes, including aggravated tax fraud and misappropriation of Syrian funds, between 1984 and 2016. He denies the charges.

Rifaat al-Assad’s trial opened on December 9 last year. He has been under investigation in France since 2014.

This came the year after anti-corruption group Sherpa filed a suit accusing Assad of using ill-gotten gains from corruption in Syria to build a real estate fortune in the country.

Rifaat al-Assad’s real estate holdings were valued at 90 million euros ($99.5m).

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

He was dubbed the “Butcher of Hama” for allegedly commanding troops who put down an uprising in central Syria in 1982.

Currently, he describes himself as an opponent of his nephew’s regime.

Lavish lifestyle

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 (78,500 square feet) of office space in Lyon.

He and his family also built up a huge portfolio of 507 properties in Spain, valued at about 695 million euros ($782m), Spanish legal documents show. All his properties in that country were seized by the authorities in 2017.

Al-Assad, awarded France’s Legion of Honour in 1986 for “services rendered”, insists his lifestyle was made possible by gifts from the Saudi royal family amounting to more than $1m per month.

But while his lawyers claimed to document gifts of almost $25m between 1984 and 2010, French investigators registered transfers from Saudi Arabia totalling only $10m.

Source: News Agencies