PARIS (AP) — The Paris prosecutor's office opened an investigation Monday into the real estate holdings of Syrian President Bashar Assad's uncle after watchdogs accused him of corruption.
Transparency International and the French anti-corruption group Sherpa filed a complaint earlier this month, alleging that Rifaat Assad is worth several million euros and that the sum is far beyond what he earned as a Syrian military commander or as the country's vice president. The complaint alleges that this fortune, including several dozen Paris apartments and a luxurious townhouse, must have been built by stealing from Syrian public funds and by abusing his power.
The groups argued that France shouldn't serve as a refuge for ill-gotten gains and called for Rifaat Assad's assets to be frozen so they can't be hidden abroad. Prosecutor's office spokeswoman Agnes Thibault-Lecuivre said a preliminary investigation was opened Monday but that no assets had been frozen. The first step, she said, is to inventory the fortune. Even that might be a difficult task, given Sherpa and Transparency International's claim that much of his holdings are registered under other people's names.
In a 2011 interview, Rifaat Assad told The Associated Press that he had lost all his money in the stock market and lived off the largesse of his 16 children. His son Siwar said at the time that the holdings mostly included real estate but also two TV networks, hotels and a restaurant in Syria.
Siwar told the AP on Monday that his father wasn't worried about the allegations because he was too busy with his work organizing one faction of Syria's opposition. Siwar cast doubt on the allegations, saying that the watchdog groups were just seeking attention, and that his father had filed suit against them alleging false and slanderous denunciations.
"The origin (of the fortune) is completely legal," he said.
Rifaat Assad fled into exile after a failed 1984 coup attempt against his brother, then-President Hafez Assad, and lives mostly in France, which awarded him the Legion of Honor. He tried to take power again in Syria in 2000, when his brother died, but the ruling party closed ranks around Bashar, whose forces are now fighting a civil war with a fractured opposition. Bashar Assad has been accused of using chemical weapons against civilians and unleashing his military's might against entire towns and cities.
Rifaat Assad leads one of the groups organized against Bashar and has put himself forward as a possible transition leader.
But he, too, has a reputation as a strongman. Human rights groups say Rifaat led crack army units in an assault that crushed a 1982 uprising in Hama, Syria. The death toll reportedly topped 20,000, a figure never officially confirmed.
Rifaat has denied any role in the Hama massacre, which he said was ordered by his late brother, Hafez. 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. And he has been accused of turning a blind eye to criminality, including drug deals and car thefts in Lebanon.
Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten contributed to this report.