Former Syria vice president Rifaat Al Assad to stand trial in Switzerland for war crimes

He is accused of ordering thousands of murders, acts of torture and illegal detentions in 1982

Former Syrian vice president Rifaat Al Assad is to face trial for war crimes. AP
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Syria's former vice president Rifaat Al Assad is to be subject of a trial in Switzerland where he is accused of war crimes committed in 1982.

It is alleged he ordered the deaths of about 60,000 civilians in Hama, Syria.

Switzerland's attorney general, Stefan Blattler, has referred him to the Federal Criminal Court (FCC) for trial on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“He is charged with ordering homicides, acts of torture, cruel treatments and illegal detentions in Syria in February 1982, in his capacity as commander of the defence brigades and commander of operations in Hama, within the context of the armed conflict and the widespread and systematic attack launched against the population of the city of Hama,” Mr Blattler said.

“In its indictment, [Switzerland] accuses Rifaat Al Assad of ordering several violations of the laws of war to be committed and, in particular, ordering the troops under his command to scour the city of Hama and execute its inhabitants in the month of February 1982, in his role as the commander responsible for operations in Hama and commander of the defence brigades.”

It alleges the conflict between the Syrian Armed Forces and the armed faction of the Muslim Brotherhood caused between 3,000 and 60,000 deaths in the city of Hama.

“Starting at the beginning of February 1982, the Syrian security forces were deployed in Hama to suppress an insurrection of the Islamist opposition,” it said.

“The operation allegedly ended at the end of the same month. The defence brigades were purportedly the main forces in charge of the suppression. In this context, several thousands of civilians were allegedly victims of different abuses, ranging from immediate execution to detention and torture in specifically created centres, according to several testimonies.”

Despite the charges, it is believed Mr Al Assad is presently in Syria and is unlikely to stand trial in person, however, Swiss prosecutors told The National he will be tried in absentia.

"Under the Swiss Criminal Procedure Code, it is possible, under certain circumstances, to file an indictment even if the defendant is not in Switzerland," they said.

"In the absence of the defendant, a trial in absentia is possible under certain conditions."

Switzerland first issued an arrest warrant for the uncle of Syria's President Bashar Al Assad for war crimes in 2022.

The war crimes complaint was first filed over a decade ago by Trial International, a human rights group that works with victims and pushes Switzerland to prosecute under the principle of “universal jurisdiction,” which allows prosecution for heinous crimes in a country that may not have been where they took place.

Swiss authorities determined that Mr Al Assad, `now 86, was in Switzerland when the official investigation was launched.

He had been forced into exile in 1984 after a failed attempt to overthrow his brother, former Syrian president Hafez Al Assad.

In 2022, France's highest court confirmed a ruling that found him guilty of acquiring millions of euros' worth of property using funds diverted from the Syrian state.

After he was convicted, President Bashar Al Assad allowed him back into Syria, ending more than 30 years of exile in France.

Benoit Meystre, a legal adviser for Trial International, acknowledged there is little chance Mr Al Assad will stand trial in person in Switzerland but said the indictment “in itself is a victory for all the victims of the (Assad) regime”, which remains in power.

“This indictment, and the trial that will be held, really highlights all the crimes of the regime and the crimes that were committed in Hama in 1982," he said.

"That was essentially the start of the violence and repression that continued for years and up to today. So symbolically, this indictment is very strong.”

His group wants Mr Al Assad to go on trial as soon as possible because of his advanced age.

Philip Grant, the executive director of Trial International, welcomed the historical indictment of such a prominent figure.

“It’s another step for justice for the Syrian people," he said.

"This case, along with past and ongoing groundbreaking proceedings, notably in Germany and France, is looking at the responsibility of the highest Syrian officials and strongly contributes to shedding light on the crimes committed by the Al Assad clan against its own people during the past decades.”

Updated: March 12, 2024, 2:11 PM