France to try Syrian President Assad's uncle on graft charges

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

The uncle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is to stand trial in France on charges of building up a property empire in the country using funds from Syrian state coffers, legal sources said Wednesday.

An investigating magistrate ordered Rifaat al-Assad to stand trial for organised money laundering in building the 90 million euro ($102 million) property portfolio in France, according to a trial order seen by AFP.

The trial date has not been set.

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

Casualty estimates from the Hama uprising are between 10,000-40,000 dead.

In a written decision dated March 8, seen by AFP, 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.

Formerly Syria's vice-president, Rifaat 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.

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 and a chateau, and 7,300 square metres (79,000 square feet) of office space in Lyon.

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

Assad and his family also own more than 500 properties in Spain worth around 690 million euros. These were seized by authorities in 2017.

Assad has maintained that his lavish lifestyle was made possible by gifts from the Saudi royal family that amounted to more than a million dollars per month.

But despite documents from Assad's lawyers meant to justify gifts of almost 25 million dollars between 1984 and 2010, the French magistrate registered only a transfer of 10 million dollars from Saudi Arabia.