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Properties Controlled by Assad’s Uncle Seized in European Laundering Inquiry

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Rifaat al-Assad in Paris in 2011. A Spanish judge ordered the seizure of numerous properties associated with him or his family.

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Michel Euler/Associated Press

LONDON — Rifaat al-Assad, an uncle of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, was named on Tuesday in a European money laundering investigation.

A Spanish judge, José de la Mata Amaya, ordered the seizure of properties in Spain that are controlled by Rifaat al-Assad or his family and are worth 691 million euros, or about $736 million.

Rifaat al-Assad was expelled from Syria in 1984 after a power struggle to determine who would eventually succeed his older brother, President Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president. He has mostly lived in exile since then.

After Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, Rifaat, from a villa in Spain, tried to proclaim himself the legitimate heir to the presidency, but his bid went nowhere and power quickly passed to Bashar.

Since then, the president’s uncle has only occasionally emerged in Syria’s affairs, notably in late 2013, when he met in Geneva with Russian officials apparently eager to find alternative opposition figures. That effort drew scorn, as Rifaat al-Assad is known as the Butcher of Hama, a reference to his possible role in the bloody suppression of an uprising in that Syrian city in 1982.

The laundering investigation, carried out jointly by France and Spain, claims that Hafez al-Assad looted the Syrian Treasury to pay off his brother and, possibly, to keep him from meddling in the country’s affairs.

In a news release, Spain’s National Court called the assets “a fortune from the coffers of the Syrian state.”

“In the 1980s, his brother and then-president expelled him from the country, fearing that he would organize a coup against him,” the court said, referring to Rifaat al-Assad. “There are indications that he handed over more than $300 million from state coffers.”

“With that money,” the court added, “he settled in France, where in 1984, he started to buy real estate. The investigation carried out by the French judicial authorities led to the conclusion that this fortune, embezzled from public funds, was used for personal gain and to the detriment of the Syrian state.”

The properties include assets in the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao, France, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg. The French authorities estimated the value of those real estate holdings at €90 million, or $95 million.

Subsequently, French investigators found that part of Mr. Assad’s fortune had ended up in Marbella, a city on the Costa del Sol in Spain. Last year, the French authorities implicated him in concealing the misuse of public funds, money laundering and other activities linked to organized crime.

In December, in cooperation with other European Union countries, the Spanish authorities found that Mr. Assad had holdings in his name in Spain that were registered under entities controlled by relatives, including two of his children and a wife. That investigation found 503 properties associated with him or his family, among them parking garages, holiday homes, apartments in a luxury hotel and country estates. Nearly all were in Marbella or a surbub, Puerto Banús.

The properties include the 355 million-square-foot La Máquina estate, which is said to occupy a third of the municipality of Benahavís, a mountainous village not far from Marbella, and to be worth €60 million, or nearly $64 million.

Some of Rifaat al-Assad’s relatives are also under investigation, including two wives, six children and several daughters-in-law. A Spanish citizen who acted as a business administrator is also under investigation.

Judge de la Mata Amaya ordered all the properties seized, but no arrests have been made.

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