Middle East

Syrian president's uncle on trial in France for money laundering

File photo of Rifaat al-Assad (2012)
Image caption Rifaat al-Assad says he was given monetary gifts by the Saudi royal family

The uncle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has gone on trial in Paris for allegedly laundering money to build a French property empire.

Rifaat al-Assad is accused of embezzling Syrian state funds to buy homes and offices worth €90m (£76m).

The 82-year-old former vice-president, who will not appear in court for medical reasons, denies any wrongdoing.

He has lived in exile since he unsuccessfully tried to seize power from his brother, Hafez, in 1984.

He is known as the "Butcher of Hama" by some Syrians because of his alleged role in the bloody suppression of an uprising in the city in 1982.

After the outbreak of Syria's civil war in 2011 he called on his nephew to step down.

Rifaat al-Assad has been under investigation in France since 2014, when the legal NGO Sherpa, which defends victims of alleged economic crimes, filed a complaint saying the value of his property empire far exceeded his known income.

Five years later, the French judicial authorities decided that he should stand trial for crimes allegedly committed between 1984 and 2016, including organised money laundering, aggravated tax fraud and misappropriation of Syrian state funds.

Investigating magistrate Renaud Van Ruymbeke alleges that Mr Assad bought properties with hundreds of millions of euros of Syrian state funds transferred as part of a settlement with his late brother, AFP news agency reports.

Mr Assad denies the charges, saying he was given gifts by the Saudi royal family.

His lawyers produced records showing that he received four Saudi payments worth about €23m in total between 1984 and 2010. But Mr Van Ruymbeke says he considers them "insufficient", and that three of the payments arrived after Mr Assad made his fortune, according to AFP.

Mr Assad and his family also have a portfolio of 507 properties in Spain valued at around €695m (£585m).

The properties were seized by the Spanish authorities in 2017 as part of a separate investigation into alleged money-laundering activities by Mr Assad and 13 other people, who have again denied any wrongdoing.

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