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UK decision to lift sanctions on Assad-linked businessman sparks outcry

The EU first sanctioned Tarif al-Akhras in 2011 and rejected a 2016 appeal to lift the sanctions
The British treasury removed Tarif al-Akhras from its sanction list last week.
The British Treasury removed Tarif al-Akhras from its sanctions list last week (AFP/File photo)

The UK's decision to lift sanctions on a prominent Syrian businessman with close ties to President Bashar al-Assad has triggered an outcry, with a law firm and rights group demanding he be relisted.

The British Treasury on 12 August removed Tarif al-Akhras from its sanctions list, saying he is "no longer subject to an asset freeze".

The move was the first of its kind since post-Brexit legislation that came into effect last December ensured that certain sanctions measures relating to Syria continue to operate effectively.

The delisting was slammed by Guernica 37, a top UK human rights law firm, and the Syrian British Council (SBC), which said it was shocking to hear "one of the major financiers of the Syrian regime" was no longer under sanctions.

Ibrahim Olabi, a barrister at the law firm, told The Telegraph that Syrian businessmen less prominent than Tarif "have been listed under a very similar criterion when the UK was part of the EU and were subsequently transferred into UK sanctions post-Brexit".

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"We believe that this act is incompatible with the UK's current policy to hold all those involved in criminal activities in support of the Syrian regime accountable," SBC's executive manager, Mazen Gharibah, told the newspaper.

Akhras is a relative of Syrian President Assad's wife, Asma, and is the founder of a commodities and trading company, the Akhras Group.

The European Union first sanctioned him and three other businessmen in September 2011 for "benefiting from or supporting" the Assad government, whose brutal crackdown on protests that year quickly turned into an all-out war that has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and left millions displaced.

In the original listing of Akhras, it said he had "close business relations with President Al-Assad's family" and also "provided logistical support for the regime".

The EU in 2016 rejected an appeal by Akhras to have the sanctions lifted.

In 2014, the British High Court handed him a one-year jail sentence for contempt of court for failing to pay $26m to a US firm in a food import deal in Syria.

An independent research institution, Jusoor for Studies, has alleged that Akhras donated funds to the Syrian government's military security branch in the city of Homs.