On Wednesday 17th June, a court in Paris sentenced Rifaat al-Assad to four years in prison for the crimes of illicit enrichment, money laundering, tax evasion and embezzlement of the Syrian people’s money.
The court ordered the confiscation of properties owned by Rifaat al-Assad in France, which is valued at approximately 90 million euros, equivalent to 100 million dollars. This is in addition to real estate properties he owns in the UK capital, London, which is valued at an estimated 29 million euros, equivalent to 33 million dollars.
The investigation of the aforementioned crimes were within the scope of 1984, the year when Rifaat moved to Europe, to 2016.
The ruling against him stipulated that he be fined 10 million euros in addition to another 30 thousand euros paid to the anti-corruption organisation (Sherpa), which defends the rights of victims of economic crimes. Sherpa filed a lawsuit against Rifaat al-Assad in 2013, for possessing real estates in France which exceed more than his known or declared authorised income, however the French judicial system did not refer him to court nor bring him to trial for five years after the lawsuit was filed.
Rifaat’s lawyer claimed that the ruling was harsh and unjustified, and that his client will appeal the ruling against him.
Rifaat al-Assad, 82 years old, brother of former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad and his partner in governance and crimes against humanity and against the Syrian people, commander of the Defence Units which perpetrated the Tadmur prison massacre on 27/6/1980, killing almost 1000 political detainees in their cells. He also masterminded and led the Hama Massacre from 2-27 February 1982, destroying a third of the old city and killing thousands of residents. The Defence Units he was directly responsible for, committed many massacres in Syrian cities, towns and villages between 1980-1983. Rifaat was also responsible for ordering his Units to forcibly remove and harass women wearing a headscarf on the streets of Damascus and other Syrian cities.
Rifaat al-Assad also seized control over the higher education sector in Syria, monopolising all scholarships and granted them to his protégées. As a vice president for security affairs, he allowed much bloodshed. His title was retained even after he was exiled until 1997, when Hafez al-Assad launched an attack on his brother’s strongholds and shut down what is called ‘illegitimate seaports’, which Rifaat used for trafficking drugs into Europe. After Hafez made his decision final that he would be succeeded and inherited by his son Bashar, he took a pledge of allegiance to him from senior and influential officers particularly within the regime’s own sect. Rifaat showed strong opposition to this, and was marketing himself as the rightful (and more capable) successor to the presidency.
When Hafez al-Assad fell sick in late 1983 and early 1984, Rifaat attempted a coup against his brother. Upon his recovery, Hafez took the initiative to remove and expel his brother, and so Rifaat went to settle in Europe, initially setting up a base in Spain then expanding to France before establishing a media platform in London. He continued to benefit from the money he stole from the Syrian people, even after his deportation as per his brother’s commands, up until 1997. Some of Rifaat’s sons set up a human rights organisation where they worked on whitewashing their father’s crimes, and instead criminalised and accused his own victims. The money looted from the Syrian people by Rifaat al-Assad were used to present gifts, air tickets, breakfast and fine dining at luxurious restaurants and parliaments for European politicians and policy-makers in order to cover for his crimes and by-contrast, promote the persona of Rifaat al-Assad.
SHRC filed lawsuits against Rifaat Assad for committing crimes against humanity and against the Syrian people, in both Spain and France in the 1990s. However, the judiciary in the two countries did not respond despite the completion of the case and the availability of witnesses and full access to information. SHRC tried, through their lawyers and with the cooperation of international humanitarian organisations, to activate the cases and filed lawsuits but to no avail. Eventually, we reached a conviction that Rifaat al-Assad was protected and had achieved immunity for the crimes he committed against the Syrian people, this conviction was further reinforced when Rifaat himself filed a lawsuit against Nizar Nayouf for ‘defaming him’ on the Al-Jazeera media channel and publicly accusing him of committing the Tadmur Prison Massacre. The accused (Nizar Nayouf) sought witness from SHRC to testify, and the head of SHRC stood before the court for hours and listed the crimes of Rifaat al-Assad, and provided many compelling evidence and documents regarding both Tadmur and the other massacres committed by Rifaat. Upon their inability to defend the evidence provided, Rifaat’s lawyers responded saying that Rifaat was merely an overruled officer carrying out the commands that were dictated to him by the Syrian president. The judge dismissed the lawsuit and was content with indirectly condemning Rifaat, by saying that some people commit crimes in their country and upon moving to the west exercise the environment of freedom there to pressurise their victims and opponents. What further reinforces this conviction is that the French organisation (Sherpa) which works on combating economic corruption had filed the lawsuit against Rifaat al-Assad in 2013, but the case was only activated five years later in 2018 after a long struggle and much effort from the renowned French organisation. The strange timing of opening the case indicates as though there were signs in the Syrian reality that made the French government allow the (independent!) French judiciary to investigate the case.
Hafez al-Assad protected his brother, whom he expelled from the country, so that the condemnation of his authoritarianism and crimes against humanity were not returned to him. Rifaat, in turn, benefited from this protection and from the protection of certain Arab regimes and personalities due to their personal ties of friendship and kinship which have continued even after their demise.
The latest procedures and sentencing from the French judiciary are insufficient, and should bring Rifaat al-Assad before the court for the crimes he has committed against the Syrian people, for the tens of thousands of his victims, for the destruction of entire towns and villages, the theft of public funds and violation of freedoms and lives. There remain many victims and witnesses who are available to testify and give evidence for the suffering they experienced at the hands of Rifaat al-Assad’s Defence Units in the 1980s.
SHRC calls for the transfer of the confiscated sums and properties to the Syrian people who suffered from the crimes of Rifaat al-Assad and his Units.
The Syrian Human Rights Committee
18th June, 2020