CORRUPTION

Spain probes Syrian president’s uncle on money-laundering suspicions

Court orders property searches and freezes bank accounts as part of inquiry into Rifaat al-Assad

Spain’s central High Court has launched an operation against relatives of the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, for alleged crimes of money laundering in criminal association. On Tuesday, Judge José de la Mata ordered 15 properties searched in wealthy Andalusian resort towns; he also froze bank accounts held by 16 individuals, and another 76 deposits held in the name of legal entities. The investigating judge suspects that the more than €300 million in funds were siphoned off from the Syrian state’s public coffers. The investigation is focusing on the president’s uncle, Rifaat al-Assad.

President Bachar al-Assad of Syria.
President Bachar al-Assad of Syria.SANA HANDOUT / Efe

The Spanish inquiry has unearthed 503 properties owned by Rifaat al-Assad and his relatives, including holiday homes, parking spaces, apartments inside a luxury hotel and country estates, among others. The majority of this real estate is located in Puerto Banús and Marbella, on the popular Costa del Sol.

Chief among all the properties is a €60-million estate called La Máquina, which covers more than 33 million square meters and takes up a third of the municipality of Benahavís, adjoining upscale Marbella.

Rifaat El-Assad has amassed properties in Spain, France, Curaçao, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg

The family’s real estate assets in Spain are worth around €691 million, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

Operation Scar, as the raid has been dubbed, is being led by the Team Against Organized Crime at the Civil Guard’s Málaga command center. The judiciary police’s actions, which did not result in any arrests, were triggered by a complaint brought by prosecutors at the High Court in December 2016. For months, investigators have been drawing up an inventory of the family’s properties and tracking their movements in Spain.

Rifaat al-Assad was vice-president of Syria under the presidency of his own brother Hafez al-Assad, who was in turn the father of current president Bashar al-Assad. In the 1980s, Rifaat was kicked out of the country by his brother, who was then in power, over fears that he was organizing a coup. There is evidence that Rifaat was given over $300 million from state coffers, money that the exile used to settle down in France, from where he started to buy up property.

French investigation

An investigation by French authorities concluded that his fortune was amassed by embezzling public funds, which were used for his own personal gain in detriment of the Syrian state. Rifaat al-Assad has since accumulated properties in France, Curaçao, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg. The French investigation estimates that his assets in that country are valued at around €90 million.

Later, French investigators confirmed that Rifaat al-Assad had begun building up his real estate empire in the Spanish resort of Marbella. In 2016, the French judiciary charged him with several crimes, including embezzlement of public funds and money laundering. Thanks to cooperation among EU members states, it was discovered that the Syrian president’s uncle owns property in Spain using companies run by his relatives.

English version by Susana Urra.

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