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France seizes properties of Syrian leader Assad’s uncle

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PARIS: French authorities have seized private mansions, offices and a horse stud farm belonging to an uncle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, suspected of having acquired the properties with embezzled funds, a source close to the case told AFP Friday.

Rifaat al-Assad, 78, who commanded Syria’s notorious internal security forces in the 1970s and early 1980s, had been charged in June with corruption for allegedly receiving embezzled public funds and tax fraud.

In the probe, investigators estimated that he and his family amassed 90 million euros ($100 million) worth of real estate in France, mainly through companies registered in Luxembourg, between 1984 and 1988.

According to Sherpa, an activist group that represents victims of financial crime and lodged complaints against him in 2013 and 2014, Rifaat al-Assad’s fortune was stolen during his time at the heart of Syrian regime.

In 1984 he was forced into exile for trying to overthrow his older brother, the late Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad.

The Assad family claims his fortune was the result of gifts from wealthy Saudi supporters, including former king Abdullah, with whom he shared a love of horse-racing.

French authorities have said he has only produced proof of one donation for $10 million in 1984.

Former Syrian foreign minister Abdel Halim Khaddam, who also resides in France, told investigators that same year Hafez al-Assad had given his brother some $300 million in order to get rid of him.

Of that, $100 million was in the form of a loan from the Libyan government, a source close to the probe told AFP.

Rifaat al-Assad’s lawyers have said the “false accusations” against their client come from longtime political opponents.

On July 8 a French judge ordered the seizure of the properties out of concern that they could be sold, preventing their confiscation if he ends up being convicted, the source close to the case told AFP.

The long list of properties ordered to be seized included a horse stud farm in the Paris region worth an estimated seven million euros, two mansions and several other properties in the French capital and a suite of offices in Lyon, estimated at 12.3 million euros, the source said.

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