French investigators are probing how the uncle of Syrian President Bashar Assad has a nearly $100 million fortune despite leaving Syria 30 years ago “with nothing,” Agence France-Presse reported Monday. Rifaat Assad, the younger brother of late Syrian President Hafez Assad, said he built up the wealth through donations from wealthy Saudis, but an activist group that triggered the investigation claimed the money was stolen from Syria before Rifaat Assad was kicked out in the 1980s.
Rifaat Assad, 77, served as head of Syria’s security forces in the 1970s and 1980s before fleeing to exile after an unsuccessful coup against his brother. He told investigators he left his country “with nothing.” Since then, Assad acquired two mansions, homes in France, Britain and Spain and owns two blocks of apartments and a stud farm. Assad listed $98 million in assets on a French customs form in May 2014, AFP reported.
"The stud farm was given to my father by Prince (later King) Abdullah of Saudi Arabia," Assad’s son, 43-year-old Soumar Assad, told the probers earlier this year, AFP reported. Soumar Assad explained the gift by saying his father and Abdullah both loved horses.
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Syrian expert Fabrice Balanche of the CNRS University in Lyons, France, doubted Soumar Assad’s claims. "Saudi Arabia has no interest in supporting Rifaat, who doesn't represent anything," Balanche told investigators.
Rifaat Assad’s lawyer, Benjamin Grundler, denied the claim by the activist group Sherpa that his client’s money came from the Syrian regime. Assad “lived principally from the sale of apartments … and from the regular help of Saudi Arabia. It is not Syrian money.”
Assad said he didn’t have a penny when he left Syria because he donated money to poor citizens of the Middle Eastern country. He said he used the Saudi donations to buy his assets but hasn’t kept a close watch on how his fortune grew.
“I only occupy myself with politics,” he said. “They bring me papers to sign … I don’t know how to pay, even in restaurants.”