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Syria's first lady faces possible prosecution and loss of UK citizenship

Britain's Metropolitan police have opened a preliminary investigation into allegations that Asma al-Assad incited war crimes
British-born Asma al-Assad has been under EU and US sanctions since 2012 (AFP)

London's Metropolitan police have opened a preliminary investigation into allegations that Asma al-Assad, the first lady of Syria, incited and encouraged terrorist acts during the country’s ten-year civil war. 

Assad, 45, who was born to Syrian parents in London and was educated in the capital, moved to Syria after her marriage to Bashar al-Assad in 2000.

The mother of three has grown in power and prominence, but now faces possible prosecution and the loss of British citizenship if she is convicted. 

Assad has given speeches supporting the Syrian armed forces, which over a decade of war, have targeted civilian areas, including hospitals and schools, with barrel bombs and heavy artillery.

Campaigners say such indiscriminate use of force, which also includes the use of chemical weapons, constitutes violations of international and national laws, including in Britain.

More than 500,000 people have been killed in the conflict while an estimated 12 million people have been displaced from their homes. 

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The Metropolitan police's war crimes unit opened the case after Guernica 37, a London-based international law chambers, submitted a dossier detailing the first lady's support for the Syrian armed forces.

Speaking to The Times, Toby Cadman, head of Guernica 37, said he believed there was a strong case for prosecuting Assad.

"Our legal team at Guernica 37 has been actively investigating this matter for several months and as a result have filed two confidential communications with the Metropolitan police service counter terrorism command (SO15). It is important that as we approach the tenth anniversary of the conflict in Syria, there is an effective process aimed at ensuring those responsible are held accountable."

Propaganda campaign

Guernica 37 alleged in a statement that Assad had incited crimes committed against the civilian population, part of a sophisticated Syrian government propaganda campaign, "akin to that of genocide denial, to wash away the crimes of the Government".

"Such a campaign has had a devastatingly corrosive and destabilising effect in Syria and has resulted in prolonging the conflict for many years already," the statement said.

"Any removal of citizenship should only come after facing a trial before an English Court where the process will be independent and impartial and will look solely at the evidence irrespective of any political considerations."

Assad, a former banker, grew up in the west London suburb of Acton and attended university at King's College London. She has been subject to EU and US sanctions since 2012.

Ranks of dictators

If prosecuted, she would join the ranks of influential figures in dictatorial regimes who have faced justice in the UK. Former Chilean despot General Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London in 1998 and spent a year under house arrest before being released and returned to Chile. 

'Any removal of citizenship should only come after facing a trial before an English Court'

- Guernica 37

Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, meanwhile, is serving a 50-year sentence in the UK after being convicted in the Hague for aiding and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone. 

However, it is thought unlikely that Assad would obey a court summons in the UK. 

Last week, the Syrian president's office announced in a statement that Assad and her husband had both contracted Covid-19.

A number of alleged British supporters of the Islamic State group, including the former London schoolgirl Shamima Begum, have been stripped of citizenship after travelling to Syria.

A Met spokesman said: "We can confirm that the Met's war crimes unit... received a referral on July 31, 2020 relating to the ongoing Syrian conflict. The referral is in the process of being assessed by officers from the war crimes unit."