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France charges Syrian president's uncle with corruption

Rifaat al-Assad, who has distanced himself from the current Syrian government, is controversial for his role in the 1982 Hama massacre
Rifaat al-Assad, exiled brother of Syria's late Preisdent Hafez al-Assad, appearing in 2000 on a London-based Arab TV station (AFP)

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's uncle, suspected of using ill-gotten gains to build a real estate empire in France, has been charged with corruption, a judicial source said on Tuesday.

Rifaat al-Assad, 78, who commanded Syria's notorious internal security forces in the 1970s and early 1980s, was charged on 9 June with receiving embezzled funds and tax fraud, the source told AFP.

In the probe, headed by prominent political graft buster Renaud van Ruymbeke, investigators estimated that Rifaat and his family amassed $100m worth of real estate in France, mainly through companies registered in Luxembourg, between 1984 and 1988.

The properties include a chateau and horse farm north of Paris, two mansions, two apartment blocks and a plot of land in the French capital as well as offices in southern Lyon.

Rifaat, who reportedly has four wives, told investigators he "had nothing" when he left Syria, having always given his wages away to the poor, according to a source close to the investigation.

His lawyers declined to comment when contacted by AFP.

Rifaat has been ordered to remain in France except for travel to Britain for medical treatment, according to Sherpa, a Paris-based activist group that represents victims of financial crime and lodged complaints against him in 2013 and 2014.

Rifaat headed Syria's notorious internal security forces at the time of the 1982 Hama massacre, which crushed a Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising, and killed between 10,000 and 25,000 civilians, according to Amnesty International. He denies responsibility for the massacre.

He was forced into exile in 1984 for trying to overthrow his older brother, the late Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad, under whom he served as vice president during the 1980s.

His distance from Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle means that he has not been affected by asset freezes and travel restrictions imposed by the European Union, according to France 24.

Rifaat even came out against Bashar al-Assad in 2011 at the start of the Syrian uprising.

In 1984 then French president Francois Mitterrand invited Rifaat to France, awarding him the Legion d'Honneur two years later.

French investigators have told AFP that Rifaat has since divided his time between homes in Paris, London and the southern Spanish resort city of Marbella.

Sherpa claims Rifaat's fortune was stolen during his time at the heart of the Syrian government.

Former Syrian vice president Abdel Halim Khaddam, who also resides in France, told investigators that Hafez al-Assad gave his brother some $300m in 1984 to get rid of him.

Of that, $100m was in the form of a loan from the Libyan government, a source close to the probe told AFP.