LONDON - Authorities in Spain and France have seized millions of dollars’ worth of assets owned by Rifaat al-Assad, the uncle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Prosecutors allege his property empire, which is worth more than a half-billion dollars, was built using money embezzled from the Syrian state in the 1980s.
As a commander of a specialist unit, Rifaat al-Assad also is accused of overseeing the Hama massacre of 1982, when the Syrian army crushed a Muslim Brotherhood uprising, killing up to 40,000 people. It’s a charge he has consistently denied.
After allegedly leading a failed coup against his brother - then President Hafez al-Assad - Rifaat was exiled to Europe.
“For three decades, Rifaat al-Assad, a former vice president of the Syrian regime, a man that many hold responsible for an atrocity in Hama in 1982 where tens of thousands of people were butchered, has wandered around Europe on the ill-gotten gains that he has taken out of Syria,” says Chris Doyle of the Council for British-Arab Understanding.
That freedom could now be coming to an end. Spanish police last week raided houses belonging to the former vice president and his family. Spanish courts have ordered the seizure of more than 500 properties worth $740 million.
Investigators believe Rifaat al-Assad embezzled more than $300 million of state funds. So far no one has been arrested.
Rifaat al-Assad’s family issued a statement saying they had "never benefited from financing that in any way wronged… the Syrian people." In 2013, at the outset of the investigation in France, Rifaat al Assad’s son Siwar said his father’s fortune came from wealthy Saudi backers.
Rifaat al-Assad also owns a $12 million house in London’s Mayfair district. Critics want Britain to follow Spain’s lead and seize his property.
“Rifaat al-Assad cannot be allowed to enjoy these billions while others are suffering,” says Doyle.
But analysts say London is renowned as a hub for so-called "dirty money," and it is doubtful that Britain will make an exception of Rifaat al-Assad. Nick Kochan is an author and expert on financial crime:
“Are the British authorities prepared to go that one step further and put all criminals, all oligarchs who have got criminal money, on notice – we are after you? Or do we select one because they are temporarily the whipping boy of the West, namely Assad?”
Kochan notes that British legislation requires a conviction before property can be seized.
“For money laundering, for theft, for corruption, for some form of economic crime where the authority can say, ‘the property was acquired with the proceeds of crime and therefore they ought to be confiscated.'”
New legislation in Britain, the so-called ‘Magnitsky Law,’ allows courts to seize the assets of human rights abusers. But legal analysts say proving that Rifaat al-Assad is responsible for past crimes would be extremely difficult without the cooperation of the Syrian government – and that of his nephew, President Bashar al-Assad.