The uncle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stood trial in Paris on Monday accused of pumping tens of millions of pounds of “ill-gotten gains” into a vast property empire for himself and his extended family.
However, Rifaat al-Assad, dubbed the "Butcher of Hama" for allegedly commanding troops that put down an uprising in central Syria in 1982, was not present in court “for medical reasons”.
His lawyers said doctors of the 82-year-old British resident had “recommended he avoid any stressful situations”.
Mr Assad, who splits his time between France and Britain, has been under investigation in France since 2014.
He is charged with organised money laundering to illegally build a €90 million (£76m) property portfolio in France.
His reported French empire comprises two Paris townhouses, one measuring 32,000 square feet, 40 luxury flats, as well as a stud farm, a chateau and 78,500 square metres of office space in Lyon.
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The trial, scheduled to last until Dec 18, concerns crimes allegedly committed between 1984 and 2016, including aggravated tax fraud and misappropriation of Syrian funds.
He denies the charges.
Mr Assad, who served as head of the feared Defense Companies paramilitary unit in the 1970s and 80s, went into exile in Europe after a failed coup against his brother Hafez, Bashar’s father, in 1984.
He has spent the last three decades between his properties in Paris, Marbella and his £10m Georgian townhouse in Mayfair. But the lavish lifestyle of the exile and his four wives and 16 children raised eyebrows.
In 2013, Sherpa, an activist group representing the victims of financial crime, lodged a complaint which claimed his fortune was stolen during his time at the heart of the Syrian regime.
The Assad family insists it was the result of gifts from wealthy Saudi supporters, including former king Abdullah, with whom he shared a love of horse-racing.
Despite documents from Mr Assad’s lawyers meant to justify gifts of almost $25 million (£19m) between 1984 and 2010, French investigators registered transfers of only $10 million from Saudi Arabia.
Beyond France, he and his family built up a huge portfolio of 507 properties in Spain, valued at around €695 million, all seized by the authorities in 2017.
Mr Assad trial is one of two “ill-gotten gains” cases in court on Monday.
The other is the appeals trial – also in absentia – of Equatorial Guinea vice-president Teodorin Obiang, who received a three-year suspended jail term in October 2017.
Obiang is appealing his conviction of squandering €100 million in public money on funding a jet-set lifestyle in Paris, where he owned dozens of supercars and an entire building on the capital’s most exclusive avenue.
Both trials continue.