France to try Syrian president Assad’s uncle on graft charges

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 to stand trial for organized 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 10,000-40,000 dead.

In a written decision dated March 8, 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 Britain, 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.

Assad’s reported French fortune includes two Paris townhouses, one measuring 3,000 square meters, as well as a stud farm and a chateau, and 7,300 square meters of office space in Lyon. Most of that was bought in the 1980s through offshore companies in Panama, Curacao, Liechtenstein, and Luxembourg.

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

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