French MPs back new plans to return looted state assets

Parliamentary debate follows high-profile convictions including Syria's Rifaat Al Assad

Rifaat Assad, an exiled uncle of Syrian president Bashar Assad, answers the Associated Press, Tuesday Nov. 15, 2011 in Paris.(AP Photo/Michel Euler)

French MPs backed a new law to repatriate plundered state assets on Friday after the conviction of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad's uncle for using looted national riches to build a vast European property portfolio.

Campaigners say the proposed new law is a potential game-changer for France after a long battle to identify property and assets held by family members of corrupt regimes.

The vote follows the conviction of Rifaat Al Assad last year and the 2017 conviction of the vice president of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, Teodorin Obiang, who had a lavish lifestyle in France, owning a string of properties and luxury cars. He was fined and given a suspended jail sentence.

The measure, part of a broader aid and development bill, comes 14 years after the start of a campaign triggered by a French charity that said 23 dictators, former dictators and their families had squirrelled away $200 billion in assets in western countries.

The prosecutions of Obiang and Al Assad relied on work by French NGOs Sherpa and Transparency International France, which both lobbied for a law that would allow seized assets to be returned to their countries of origin, instead of being kept by France.

“This has been a 14-year legal and legislative battle," said Sara Brimbeuf, the head of illicit financial flows advocacy at TI France. "This has been our main objective. It's not perfect but it's a step in the right direction."

She said the stolen assets could be returned via French development projects or aid agencies to ensure that assets would not be looted for a second time in countries with unstable or corrupt governments.

The new measure will now go to the French Senate for approval and could become law within weeks. Even though the law will not be applied retrospectively, it can be used in both the Assad and Obiang cases as the men are yet to exhaust their legal challenges to the verdicts.

France seized properties belonging to Al Assad, 82, who was allowed to remain free pending his appeal and is unlikely to serve a jail term because of his age.

The court was told that Al Assad, known as the Butcher of Hama after allegedly commanding forces responsible for the 1982 massacre in the city, has a property empire worth an estimated $100m.

His French fortune included two Parisian townhouses, a stud farm, 40 apartments and a chateau. Al Assad and his family also owned more than 500 properties in Spain that were seized by authorities in 2017.

He was convicted last year of tax fraud, embezzling Syrian state assets and money laundering after an investigation that started in 2014.

A Spanish judge also said that he secured money in the 1970s through extortion, drug trafficking and the theft of archaeological items.

Al 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 his brother. He describes himself as an opponent of the current regime.