French jail term confirmed for uncle of Syria’s al-Assad

Court confirms last year’s four-year prison sentence against 84-year-old Rifaat al-Assad, which he may not have to serve given his advanced age.

Rifaat al-Assad
Rifaat al-Assad's French fortune includes two townhouses in chic Parisian neighbourhoods, a stud farm, about 40 apartments, and a chateau [File: Michel Euler/AP Photo]

A French court has reportedly upheld a guilty verdict against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s uncle for misappropriating public funds in Syria, laundering the spoils and building a vast property portfolio in France with ill-gotten gains.

AFP news agency reported on Thursday that the Paris appeals court had confirmed a four-year jail sentence for Rifaat al-Assad, although the 84-year-old former military commander is unlikely to serve time because of his age.

The ruling, however, clears the way for all of Rifaat al-Assad’s property in France, estimated to be worth about 90 million euros ($106m), to be seized, as ordered by the lower court in June last year.

Rifaat al-Assad has been under investigation in France since 2014.

The younger brother of the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad – father of the incumbent president – was tried for crimes allegedly committed between 1984 and 2016, including aggravated tax fraud and misappropriation of Syrian funds.

A Paris court last June dismissed charges against Rifaat al-Assad for the period 1984 to 1996, but found him guilty of organised laundering of funds embezzled from the Syrian public purse between 1996 and 2016. He was also convicted of tax fraud.

Formerly Syria’s vice president, Rifaat al-Assad left his home country in 1984 after mounting a failed coup against his brother Hafez, who led Syria from 1971 to 2000.

His French fortune includes two townhouses in chic Parisian neighbourhoods, a stud farm, about 40 apartments and a chateau, AFP said.

Rifaat al-Assad and his family also built up a huge portfolio of properties in Spain, valued at around 695 million euros ($822m), which were all seized by the authorities in 2017, it reported.

Lawyers for Rifaat al-Assad, who was awarded France’s Legion of Honour in 1986 for “services rendered”, have insisted all his money had a lawful origin.

The French case against him began with a suit filed in 2013 by anti-corruption campaign group Sherpa.

Calling Thursday’s verdict “encouraging”, Sherpa said in a statement that it hoped the courts would now intensify the fight against illicit funds stashed away in France.

“This decision is a victory that emphasises the importance of establishing a binding framework for the operational aspects of the restitution of assets derived from grand corruption,” the group said on Twitter.

Moreover, the organisation said the funds should be allocated “to projects in the areas of health, education, and good governance”.

Rifaat al-Assad is also widely held responsible for the suppression of an uprising in 1982 against Hafez in which many thousands were killed.

Source: News Agencies