French court sentences Bashar al-Assad’s uncle for embezzlement
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French court sentences Bashar al-Assad’s uncle for embezzlement

Rifaat al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s uncle, on Wednesday was sentenced to four years in prison by a Paris court for embezzling Syrian state funds to buy millions of dollars worth of property throughout France and the United Kingdom.

Rifaat has lived in exile, primarily in France and Spain, since being accused of trying to seize power from his brother in 1984. His brother was former President of Syria Hafez al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s father, who led Syria from 1971 until he died in 2000. Rifaat was the leader of Syria’s military and, as the right-hand man to his brother, was once widely believed to the second most powerful man in the country.

In 1984, Rifatt led a failed coup against his brother, which forced him to flee Syria and live in exile. Hafez’s death prompted Rifatt to name himself as his brother’s legitimate successor. However, Rifaat was unable to garner significant support in the country and Bashar was chosen as his father’s successor instead.

Rifaat is also known in Syria as the “Butcher of Hama” for his alleged role in the brutal suppression of anti-government uprisings in the city in 1982, which resulted in the deaths of at least 10,000 people. Rifaat has maintained that he played no role in that massacre and denied any allegations relating to it. French authorities have long suspected that his vast fortune may have been acquired illegally. Despite refutations by Rifaat that the Saudi King provided his resources, these suspicions persisted.

Wednesday’s ruling seized his assets in Paris and London which is estimated at greater than 100 million euros. Rifaat’s French assets reportedly “includes two Paris townhouses, a stud farm, a chateau and 7,300 square meters of office space in Lyon.” Several other luxury properties had already been seized by the French authorities. The court also ordered Rifaat to pay 30,000 euros to the anti-corruption NGO Sherpa which first filed a legal complaint against him in 2013, prompting this investigation.

Rifaat was hospitalized in December for internal bleeding and was not in court for the ruling. The 82-year-old is also unlikely to serve his sentence due to his ongoing medical complications and his advanced age. His lawyers have already confirmed that he will appeal. The court has ordered that Rifaat should not be sent to prison until the resolution of his appeal.

In 2017, Spanish authorities seized more than 500 Spanish properties from him. Those properties have been estimated to be worth 700 million euros and were seized as part of a joint money-laundering investigation between France and Spain.