Ongoing proceedings against Syria’s former vice president and head of the Defense Brigades in Syria for alleged war crimes committed in Hama in February 1982.
Type of jurisdiction
Rifaat al-Assad, Syria’s former vice president, brother of the former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, and uncle of the current president Bashar al-Assad, former head of the Defense Brigades (Saraya al-Difa), Syria’s elite commando troops, from 1971 to 1984.
Country of residence of suspect
Formerly residing in France, the suspect fled to Syria in October 2021 where he currently resides.
As the case is at the investigation stage, the suspect has not yet been formally charged. The investigation focuses on war crimes allegedly committed in Hama in February 1982.
Under investigation in Switzerland for war crimes; sentenced to four years in prison in France for financial crimes.
In February 1982, opponents of the regime took up arms in Hama. As retaliation, the Syrian armed forces, including the Defense Brigades, attacked the city. The civilian population was trapped and cut off from supply, food and electricity for almost a month. The estimated number of civilian casualties ranges from 10’000 to 40’000, depending on the source. Apart from the high number of casualties, whole areas of the city were destroyed.
Rifaat al-Assad, as the commander of the Defense Brigades, is suspected of having participated in the massacre of several thousands of people in Hama in 1982 during the civil war in Syria.
Procedure in Switzerland
In December 2013, after being informed that Rifaat al-Assad was present on Swiss territory, TRIAL International filed a criminal complaint with the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) accusing him of having committed war crimes during the Hama massacre in 1982. A criminal investigation was opened a few days later against Rifaat al-Assad for the same charges.
In August 2014, a plaintiff joined the proceedings.
In 2015, Rifaat al-Assad returned to Geneva. TRIAL International and the plaintiff asked the Swiss authorities to arrest him in order to proceed to his hearing. After the OAG refused to proceed with his arrest, the plaintiff filed a motion for provisional measures before the Federal Criminal Court. The Court ordered the OAG to hear Rifaat al-Assad without delay, and a short hearing took place.
In 2016, three other plaintiffs joined the criminal proceedings.
In 2017, TRIAL International filed an additional complaint, with various offers of proof, regarding Rifaat al-Assad’s involvement in the Tadmor prison massacre that occurred in 1980. The complaint was dismissed by the OAG.
On September 2017, four years after the official opening of the investigation, one of the plaintiffs filed a petition alleging a denial of justice. The Federal Criminal Court dismissed it, considering that the extensive delay could be explained by the complexity of the case.
In August 2018, a letter to Switzerland signed by the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on torture and on the independence of judges and lawyers was published by the UN. It heavily criticized Switzerland for an alleged lack of independence and political interference notably concerning the case against Rifaat al-Assad. In five years of proceedings, only four witnesses and two plaintiffs had been heard.
In April 2021, a fifth plaintiff – who had joined the case in October 2020 – was heard by the OAG and in June the same year, one witness was heard.
Procedure in France
In June 2020, Rifaat al-Assad was convicted in France and sentenced to four years in jail for money laundering and embezzlement of Syrian public funds. French authorities also confiscated several properties worth millions.
In September 2021, the French Court of Appeal confirmed Rifaat al-Assad’s conviction and sentence for financial crimes as well as the confiscation measures ordered against him.
In October 2021, Rifaat al-Assad fled Europe to return to Syria despite this second instance conviction and the judicial surveillance he was under in France.
DEVELOPMENTS IN 2022
In September 2022, the French Supreme Court confirmed Rifaat al-Assad’s conviction, making it definitive. It is now up to the French government to work on the restitution of stolen assets “as close as possible to the deprived population” as provided for by law since July 2021.
In Switzerland, nine years after the initial opening and regardless of al-Assad’s return to Syria, the investigation for war crimes remains ongoing, however at a slow pace. Only one witness, whose hearing had been postponed in 2021, was heard in March 2022.