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.
Assad, a former Syrian vice president who fled his country and is now in his 80s, was tried in absentia for medical reasons.
Transparency International and French anti-corruption group Sherpa filed a complaint in 2013 accusing 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.
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.