Rifaat al-Assad in Paris in 2011
According to court documents, Rifaat al-Assad was found guilty of organised money laundering of Syrian public funds between 1996 and 2016 and of aggravated tax fraud © Michel Euler/AP

A Paris court has sentenced Rifaat al-Assad, uncle of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, to four years in jail and seized €90m worth of his property in the latest “ill-gotten gains” case targeting wealthy foreign leaders to be heard in France. 

Mr Assad, 82, has lived in western Europe since his failed attempt to overthrow his brother Hafez, Bashar’s father in 1984. He did not appear in court for health reasons. 

He was found guilty of organised money laundering of Syrian public funds between 1996 and 2016 and of aggravated tax fraud, according to court documents obtained by the Financial Times. Properties seized included a castle, a stud farm, two large Paris houses and dozens of apartments in France, as well as one property in London. 

The court concluded that there was “corroborative evidence of the diversion of public funds at the expense of the Syrian state and for the sole profit of Rifaat al-Assad”.

His lawyers said the decision was “supported by no objective evidence” and that they would immediately appeal. 

Hafez al-Assad (right) when he was Syrian President, with his brother Rifaat at a reception in 1986
Rifaat al-Assad (left) has lived in western Europe since his failed attempt to overthrow his brother Hafez (right), Bashar’s father in 1984 © AFP/Getty

Sherpa and Transparency France, two anti-corruption groups that encouraged the prosecution, said the case showed the need to strengthen the French legal arsenal to better identify and confiscate so-called “biens mal acquits”, or ill-gotten assets.

Vincent Brengarth, lawyer for Sherpa, said the judgment was a very satisfactory conclusion to a complex case that started in 2013. “It marks the end of the impunity of the Assad clan,” he said. “We are starting to see a change of the way things are seen.”

Wealthy tyrants and former leaders from Africa and the Middle East have often made second homes and invested their fortunes in cities such as Paris and London, but over the past decade the pressure from human rights and anti-corruption campaigners on European governments to prosecute abuses has steadily increased.

Among the African ruling families to have properties and belongings seized in France since 2011 are those of presidents Obiang, Sassou Nguesso and Bongo, respectively from Equatorial Guinea, Congo-Brazzaville and Gabon. 

Mr Assad is no longer considered a member of the inner circle of the ruling Assad clan, which belongs to the Alawite religious minority. But he commanded elite regime troops for 13 years before being made vice-president in 1984.

Human rights activists have alleged Mr Assad oversaw the killing of tens of thousands of Syrians in Hama in 1982, when he was head of the Syrian regime’s elite forces. A criminal complaint was filed against him in Switzerland in 2013 over alleged war crimes. The case was dropped by Swiss authorities.

After his attempted coup and defection, Mr Assad was awarded France’s Legion of Honour for “services to the nation” by then president François Mitterrand in 1986. 

After nine years of civil war, his nephew President Assad has regained control over two-thirds of the country, and the remaining rebels have been corralled into a north-western corner of the country. Syria is now hit by a severe economic crisis, which has led to a collapse of the local currency.

The current president has blamed western sanctions against the Syrian government, its oil industry and regime-linked business leaders, including a sanctions package introduced by the Trump administration on Wednesday. Targets of US sanctions include Asma al-Assad, the president’s British-born wife.

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