Prosecutors want Assad uncle tried over French property empire

Nathalie ALONSO
A TV grab made on June 12, 2000 shows a photo of Rifaat al-Assad, uncle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as it appeared on the London-based Arab News Network (ANN) television station (AFP Photo/-)

Paris (AFP) - French prosecutors have called for the uncle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stand trial on charges of pilfering Syrian state coffers to amass a 90 million-euro ($102 million) property portfolio in France, including a stud farm and a chateau, judicial sources told AFP Thursday.

Rifaat al-Assad, dubbed the "Butcher of Hama" for allegedly commanding the troops behind the bloody suppression of an uprising in central Syria in 1982, has been under investigation in France since 2014.

In a written decision dated March 8, which AFP saw on Thursday, the office of the financial crimes prosecutor called for Assad to stand trial for laundering the proceeds of aggravated tax fraud, embezzling Syrian state funds, and failing to register French security and cleaning staff.

Assad, who splits his time between France and Britain, denies the charges.

The final decision on whether he will face a trial rests with the investigating magistrate in the case.

"We firmly reject the accusations which are based on perfectly erroneous analyses, hasty conclusions and contradictory testimony from longstanding political opponents," his legal team told AFP.

Former Syrian vice-president Assad left Syria in 1984 after mounting a failed coup against his brother Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, who led Syria from 1971 to 2000.

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

His reported French fortune includes two Paris townhouses, one of over 3,000 square metres (30,000 square feet), as well as a stud farm and chateau near the French capital, and 7,300 square metres of office space in Lyon.

Most of this was acquired in the 1980s through offshore companies in Panama, Curacao, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg.

He and his family also own over 500 properties in Spain. These were seized by authorities in 2017.

- Paris high life -

French authorities opened an investigation in April 2014 after two non-governmental anti-graft groups, Sherpa and Transparency International, raised red flags.

Two years later, they charged Assad with tax fraud and embezzlement of public funds.

Appearing before a French magistrate for the first time in January 2015, Assad was evasive, saying he did not manage his fortune personally. "I'm concerned only with politics," he said.

However, wiretapping records and witnesses suggested otherwise, painting a picture of a man who did not delegate and closely watched his holdings.

Assad claimed he owed his fortune to the largesse of Saudi king Abdullah, who died in January 2015.

But French prosecutors believe much of the funds came from Syrian state coffers.

The case is the latest in a string of cases brought in France against the families of foreign autocrats whose lavish lifestyles while ordinary citizens in their countries endure grinding hardship have attracted the attention of the authorities.

The vice president of the West African state of Equatorial Guinea, Teodorin Obiang, was given a three-year suspended sentence for corruption at the first "ill-gotten gains" trial in France in 2017.

He has appealed the verdict.