Bashar Al Assad’s uncle sentenced to four years in prison by French court

Rifaat Al Assad found guilty of acquiring French property empire using plundered Syrian funds

Rifaat Assad, an exiled uncle of Syrian president Bashar Assad, answers the Associated Press, Tuesday Nov. 15, 2011 in Paris.(AP Photo/Michel Euler)
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A French judge sentenced the uncle of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to four years in jail on Wednesday for plundering Syrian assets to build a vast European property portfolio during two decades of criminal activity.

The Paris court ordered the seizure of Rifaat Al Assad’s properties in France and a property worth $32 million (Dh120m) in London, in the latest major hit to the finances of the notorious 82-year-old and his family. He was dubbed the Butcher of Hama for allegedly commanding the military forces responsible for the 1982 massacre in the town where as many as 40,000 people were killed.

Assad, who was not in court for Wednesday’s verdict on health grounds, will remain free pending an appeal. He is unlikely to serve time in jail owing to his age.

The court was told that he has a property empire worth an estimated $100m (Dh367m). He was convicted of tax fraud, embezzling Syrian state assets and money laundering at the conclusion of an investigation that started in 2014.

Assad has 50 years of family ties to the Syrian leadership. His older brother, Hafez Al Assad, ruled Syria from 1971 to 2000. Hafez was succeeded by his son – and Rifaat’s nephew - Bashar.

The former vice-president left Syria in 1986 after mounting a failed coup against Hafez. He describes himself as an opponent of the current regime.

His French fortune included two Parisian townhouses, a stud farm, 40 apartments and a chateau. Assad and his family also owned more than 500 properties in Spain that were seized by authorities in 2017. A Spanish judge also said that he had secured money in the 1970s through extortion, drug trafficking and the theft of archaeological items.

Assad had claimed that his lifestyle was made possible by gifts from the Saudi royal family of more than $1 million per month. He claimed not to have taken a penny from Syria.

But investigators were able to track only $10 million from Saudi sources and the court found that there was "consistent evidence of the misappropriation of public funds at the expense of the Syrian state and for the exclusive benefit of Rifaat Al Assad".

The French case against him began with a suit filed in 2013 by the anti-corruption campaign group Sherpa. It said in a statement: “This decision is of particular importance in the current Syrian context and underscores the urgency of establishing a French legal framework for the restitution of looted assets.”

Sherpa urged that Assad be stripped of the 1986 award of Legion of Honour, the highest French decoration, given to him for services rendered to France.

He is the second foreign dignitary to be tried on charges of securing "ill-gotten gains", after the vice president of Equatorial Guinea, Teodorin Obiang, received a three-year suspended jail term in October 2017.