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Bashar al-Assad’s uncle found guilty in France over 'ill-gotten gains' empire

In this file photo taken on June 12, 2000 is of a TV grab showing a photo of Rifaat al-Assad, the exiled brother of Syria's late Preisdent Hafez al-Assad, as it appeared on June 12, 2000 on the London-based Arab News Network (ANN) television station, which belongs to his son Sumer.
In this file photo taken on June 12, 2000 is of a TV grab showing a photo of Rifaat al-Assad, the exiled brother of Syria's late Preisdent Hafez al-Assad, as it appeared on June 12, 2000 on the London-based Arab News Network (ANN) television station, which belongs to his son Sumer. © Arab News Network / AFP

Rifaat al-Assad has been found guilty by a French court of money laundering and embezzling Syrian state funds to buy property in France worth at least €90m. He has been sentenced to four years in prison.

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The uncle of the current president of Syria was not in the dock to hear his judgement on Wednesday, having been hospitalized last December at the start of his trial with internal bleeding.

Rifaat al-Assad has been under investigation since 2014, dogged by allegations surrounding the source of his wealth.

The former vice president was kicked out of Syria "with nothing" 30 years ago and went on to amass a 90-million-euro fortune in France, including a stud farm and luxury apartments.

Anti-corruption group Sherpa filed a complaint claiming the fortune was stolen and hailed the trial in December as a "landmark step."

Strong evidence

Prosecutors told the court in December that there were “strong, consistent presumptions of the illicit nature” of his wealth, “knowingly concealed” using shell companies and tax havens.

On Wednesday, a French court decided there was strong enough evidence against Assad and sentenced him to four years in prison. They also ruled that the 82-year-old's property in France be seized as well as well as an estate worth 29 million euros in London.

Lawyers for Rifaat al-Assad had argued that his fortune was acquired "perfectly legally" through generous support from Saudi Arabia's late King Abdullah, with whom he shared a love of horse-racing.

Despite documents from Assad's lawyers meant to justify gifts of almost $25 million (22 million euros) between 1984 and 2010, French investigators registered transfers of only $10 million (8 million euros) from Saudi Arabia.

Lavish lifestyle

Assad's 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 of office space in Lyon.

Rifaat al-Assad left Syria in 1984 after leading a failed coup against his brother, the current Syrian president’s father, who led the country from 1971 to 2000.

After he arrived in Europe, Assad's lavish lifestyle, four wives and 16 children soon raised eyebrows.

Beyond France, he and his family built up a huge portfolio of 507 properties in Spain, valued at around €695 million, all seized by the authorities in 2017.

A member of the Spanish Guardia civil carries a cardboard box during a raid targeting assets of Rifaat al-Assad and his family in Spain valued at 691 million euros.
A member of the Spanish Guardia civil carries a cardboard box during a raid targeting assets of Rifaat al-Assad and his family in Spain valued at 691 million euros. AFP - JORGE GUERRERO

Dubbed “The Butcher of Hama” for allegedly commanding troops who put down an uprising in central Syria in 1982, he is also being investigated in Switzerland for alleged war crimes, which he denies.

'Politically motivated'

Assad, who today describes himself as an opponent of the regime of his nephew, has denounced the case against him as politically motivated.

His lawyers told investigators: “The sole purpose of this process was to remove Rifaat al-Assad from Syrian politics, when he had enjoined Bashar al-Assad to leave power to end the crisis."

The case against Rifaat-- only the second in France targeting so-called “ill-gotten gains” by a foreign dignitary -- is a fall from grace for a man whom in 1986 was awarded the Legion d'Honneur, France's highest award, for his role in protecting French interests from Syrian secret services.

In the first trial, Equatorial Guinea vice president Teodorin Obiang received a three-year suspended jail term in October 2017 after being convicted of using public money to fund a jet-set lifestyle in Paris at the expense of his population. Earlier this year, an appeal court upheld the embezzlement conviction.

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