MADRID – Spanish police investigating a money laundering case involving former Syrian vice president Rifaat Assad — the exiled uncle of Syria’s current leader — raided properties and blocked dozens of bank accounts belonging or linked to him and his relatives on Tuesday.
Civil Guard police said the searches were carried out in the southern coastal towns of Marbella and Puerto Banús with the aid of French police. They followed a request by National Court judge José de la Mata who is probing money-laundering crimes carried out by a gang in the two towns, a court statement said.
Two of Rifaat Assad’s wives and six of his sons are among the 15 people investigated.
The judge ordered the seizure of more than 500 properties owned by Rifaat Assad and his relatives, a court statement said. Most of them are located in Puerto Banús, a luxury marina in Costa del Sol. The property stock, valued at $735 million, includes a 12.7 sq. mile estate valued at $64 million.
The accounts of 76 “legal entities” —which include companies, trusts and funds— that were owned, administered or linked to Rifaat Assad and his relatives were also blocked, a court statement said.
The court said that no arrests were made.
Rifaat Assad’s asset manager, Cedric Anthony, said: “We have confidence in the justice system, and we are cooperating with the judges, because we have nothing to hide.”
He would not comment further on Tuesday’s searches or say where Rifaat Assad and his children currently are.
Rifaat’s children Siwar Assad and Ribal Assad, believed to be based in France, did not respond to phone calls.
Rifaat Assad is the exiled uncle of Syrian President Bashar Assad. He was vice president of Syria when the country was ruled by the current leader’s father.
He fled into exile after a failed 1984 coup attempt against his brother, then-President Hafez Assad, and lives mostly in France. He tried to take power again in Syria in 2000, when his brother died, but the ruling party closed ranks around Bashar.
Rifaat was critical of Bashar after the country’s crisis began in March 2011, vowing to work to topple the Syrian president and give the power to the people.
Spain opened the money laundering investigation last December following one started by France in 2013. Last June, France’s financial prosecutor’s office filed preliminary charges against Rifaat Assad for embezzlement and other counts.
Anti-corruption group Sherpa, which filed the original French suit, suspects Rifaat Assad of using ill-gotten gains from corruption in Syria to build a real estate fortune in France. French authorities found that much of his real estate was in southern Spain.
In a 2011 interview, Rifaat Assad told the press that he had lost all his money in the stock market and lived off the largesse of his 16 children. His son Siwar said at the time that the holdings mostly included real estate, TV networks, hotels and a restaurant in Syria.
Siwar told news agencies in 2013 that his father wasn’t worried about the allegations because he was too busy with his work organizing one faction of Syria’s opposition.
Rifaat is widely reviled back home. As leader of an elite military corps under his brother Hafez — Syria’s longtime dictator — he allegedly had a role in the 1982 massacre of thousands in the central city of Hama, one of the darkest moments in the modern Middle East.
Rifaat denied any role in the massacre, saying it was ordered by Hafez.