Rifaat al-Assad on trial in Switzerland: No statute of limitations for war crimes

Rifaat al-Assad (Al-Watan)

Rifaat al-Assad (Al-Watan)


Enab Baladi – Yamen Moghrabi

In Switzerland, Rifaat al-Assad, the uncle of the Syrian regime’s president, is facing a new trial, adding to the lawsuits and judicial cases already filed against him in Britain, Spain, and France.

The Swiss Public Prosecutor’s Office issued a statement on March 12 calling for Rifaat al-Assad to be tried before the Federal Criminal Court on charges of committing war crimes.

The statement accused him of committing murders, torture, cruel treatment, and illegal arrests in Syria in February 1982.

The allegations against Rifaat al-Assad varied from embezzlement and tax evasion to committing war crimes during the armed conflict between the Syrian regime forces and the Fighting Vanguard organization, which was affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood group in Hama city in the 1980s.

Two years ago, Rifaat al-Assad returned to Syria after years of exile and appeared alongside Bashar al-Assad and his brother Maher and other family members in a family photo in 2023, the first in decades.

Crimes not subject to statute of limitations

The statement published on the website of the Public Prosecutor’s Office noted that in the 1980s, Rifaat was the commander of the Defence Companies and the military operations in the city of Hama.

Rifaat al-Assad ordered his forces to comb through Hama city and execute its residents, thereby violating the laws of war, according to Article “109” (Paragraph 1) of the Military Penal Law, in addition to the common Article “3” of the Geneva Conventions.

The Swiss Federal Criminal Court (FCC) and Federal Office of Justice (FOJ) issued an international arrest warrant for Rifaat al-Assad for his role in the “grave war crimes” committed in Hama city in February 1982.

The international criminal law specialist, al-Mutassim al-Kilani, told Enab Baladi that the charges leveled by Switzerland against Rifaat al-Assad are not subject to the statute of limitations and will pave the way for prosecuting other individuals associated with those crimes.

The trial comes after human rights activists pursued Rifaat al-Assad after he was seen in December 2013 at the Lake Geneva hotel.

The TRIAL International organization filed a legal case in front of the Public Prosecutor, as published by the organization’s Executive Director, Philip Grant, on his “X” account in August 2023.

Two years later, Rifaat was again spotted in the same hotel, and while the Public Prosecutor’s Office was sluggish in requesting a hearing without arresting him, the Federal Criminal Court (FCC) ordered the Public Prosecutor’s Office to confront him with the charges at least, which happened inside his hotel suite in September 2015.

After that, Rifaat al-Assad was not arrested, but he seemed to agree to participate in further proceedings, knowing that he was living lavishly thanks to a “huge embezzled fortune” in his exile in France, which had awarded him its highest national honor, the “Legion of Honour”.

Rifaat al-Assad played a principal role in the military and political life in Syria since his brother Hafez came to executive power in 1970. He was seen as his brother’s successor, but the sibling struggle did not lead to this scenario, and exile was the choice.

The investigation in Switzerland began at a “very” slow pace and continued in that manner, even though TRIAL International provided a “tremendous amount” of evidence by listening to victims and witnesses, but the authorities delayed for years.

The court applied a “limited effort” in the attempt to hear the suspect, even though Rifaat al-Assad was still living in neighboring France at that time. Even UN experts “spoke of political interference and a lack of impartiality,” according to Grant.

Amidst the slow investigation, TRIAL International continued its investigations and submitted a complaint that included a second charge against Rifaat al-Assad, this time for a 1980 massacre in the Tadmor prison in central Syria.

Will Rifaat become a bargaining chip?

The regional changes and stagnation of the Syrian file, after many years since the start of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, have led to a different engagement with Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, who has become at least more capable over the past year, to maneuver through several files, such as the drug smuggling issue, for example.

One question was raised after Rifaat’s return to Damascus in 2021, and the ongoing cases against him, is whether the Syrian regime could have negotiated certain understandings to hand over Rifaat for trial in Europe.

Al-Mutassim al-Kilani does not believe the regime will move in this direction, considering that it does not recognize the universal jurisdiction under which Rifaat is being tried, especially with his return and his possession of billions of Syrian pounds.

Rifaat’s assets in Paris include two palaces, one of which is 3,000 square meters, a horse farm, and another palace near the French capital, as well as a 7,300-square-meter property in Lyon.

His wealth in France is estimated at around 90 million euros, through companies headquartered in Luxembourg. French-Spanish customs confiscated Rifaat’s assets on Spanish territory in March 2018.

The value of his assets there is 600 million euros, consisting of 503 facilities, including restaurants, hotels, and luxury possessions, he owned in the city of Marbella in Spain.

According to al-Kilani, there are indeed names of officers and figures in the Syrian regime who are sought for trial under the same jurisdiction, so the regime will not venture in this direction.


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