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France sentences Syrian leader's uncle for money laundering

PARIS – 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 hailed the Paris court's ruling as a new victory in long-running efforts to prosecute foreign leaders accused of hiding stolen money in France.

Assad, 82, a former Syrian vice president who fled his country, was tried in absentia for medical reasons. His lawyers said they immediately appealed the decision.

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 90 million euros ($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.

A representative for Rifaat Assad's family, Cedric Anthony-Btesh, alleged that the trial was politically charged.

"We are very surprised," he told The Associated Press. “There was not the slightest material proof or sign of (illicit) financial flows" despite multiple searches and investigations in multiple countries.

It’s the second such ruling in France prompted by a campaign by Sherpa and Transparency International to hold foreign dignitaries to account for laundering embezzled state money abroad.

Sherpa hopes Assad's money will one day find its way back to the Syrian people, and is working to develop a transparent legal mechanism for restitution that would ensure the money doesn't end up in the hands of repressive rulers.

The groups also urged French President Emmanuel Macron to revoke Rifaat Assad's Legion of Honor award, granted by the French state.

Rifaat Assad, who commanded a military brigade in Syria in the early 1980s, acquired the nickname “the Butcher of Hama” after human rights groups alleged he supervised an assault that crushed a 1982 uprising in Hama, Syria. Rifaat has denied any role in the Hama massacre. He has also been linked to the 1980 killings of hundreds of prisoners as well as Syrian army abuses in Lebanon in the 1970s and early 1980s.