The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Syrian president’s uncle allowed to return after decades in exile

Rifaat al-Assad, the exiled uncle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in an interview in Marbella, southern Spain, in 2005. (Paul White/AP)

BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad allowed his long-exiled uncle back into the country after a French court ruled to imprison him for four years and confiscate his assets.

Rifaat al-Assad, 84, was exiled by his brother Hafez, Bashar al-Assad’s father, in 1984 after leading a failed coup attempt. Rifaat was also dubbed the “Butcher of Hama” for commanding forces that brutally put down an uprising in the city of Hama in 1982.

Pro-government newspaper al-Watan announced that Bashar had allowed his uncle to return “to prevent his imprisonment in France” following the court decision and the earlier confiscation of his assets and wealth in Spain. The newspaper said the president forgave “all that Rifaat al-Assad had done and has allowed him to return to Syria same as any other Syrian citizen, and he will have no political or social role.”

Rifaat had been under investigation by the French authorities since 2014 and was found guilty of money laundering by a Paris court. He was convicted of embezzling Syrian state funds to purchase property in France. He claims much of his wealth was given to him as gifts by the Saudi royal family.

Rifaat, a once-formidable military commander, was Hafez’s right-hand man before his exile. He proclaimed himself the legitimate ruler after the death of his brother in 2000, but Bashar took over as president. After anti-government protests erupted in the country in 2011, Rifaat called on his nephew to step down.