France Sentences Syrian Leader’s Uncle for Money Laundering

Rifaat Assad, the exiled uncle of Syrian President Bashar Assad, speaks during a 2005 interview at his office in Marbella, southern Spain. Bashar Assad was sentenced Wednesday, in absentia, to four years in prison for illegally using Syrian state funds to build a French real estate empire. (AP Photo/Paul White, File)

PARIS (AP) — An uncle of Syrian President Bashar Assad was sentenced to four years in prison in France on Wednesday for illegally using Syrian state funds to build a French real estate empire.

The anti-corruption groups that launched the legal proceedings against Rifaat Assad announced the decision by a Paris court, and hailed it as a new victory in long-running efforts to prosecute foreign leaders accused of hiding stolen money in France.

News of the ruling came shortly before the United States announced sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s wife and dozens of others.

Marking the first enforcement of a law called the Caesar Act, which punishes any companies that work with Assad, the first batch of designations target 39 people or entities, including Assad personally as well as his wife, Asma. It is the first time she has been targeted by U.S. sanctions, but U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asserted in a statement Wednesday that she “has become one of Syria’s most notorious war profiteers.”

Pompeo called the sanctions “the beginning of what will be a sustained campaign of economic and political pressure to deny the Assad regime revenue and support it uses to wage war and commit mass atrocities against the Syrian people.”

“We anticipate many more sanctions and we will not stop until Assad and his regime stop their needless, brutal war against the Syrian people,” Pompeo added.

Under the law, any assets in the United States will be frozen.

France tried Assad’s uncle, a former Syrian vice president who fled his country and is now in his 80s, in absentia for medical reasons.

Transparency International and French anti-corruption group Sherpa filed a complaint in 2013 accusing Rifaat Assad of using shell companies in tax havens to launder public funds from Syria into France. His French holdings, which include several dozen apartments and two luxury townhouses in Paris, have been valued at $99.5 million — a sum the watchdog groups say is well beyond what he could have earned as a Syrian vice president and military commander.

Rifaat Assad, charged with money laundering and diversion of public funds, denied wrongdoing. He said the funds that allowed him to buy his French real estate came from generous gifts from his 16 children and the late Saudi king.

Assad, brother to former President Hafez Assad, fled Syria after a falling out with the former ruler and a failed coup attempt in 1984. Since then, Rifaat Assad and his large family have amassed a real estate empire across several European countries, while continuing to organize opposition to Bashar Assad’s government from abroad.

Courthouse News contributed to this report.

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