Uncle of Syria's Assad returns home from decades-long exile

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Former Syrian vice president Rifaat al-Assad (L), who has returned home from 36 years of exile to avoid serving jail time in France, is pictured with his brother, then president Hafez al-Assad, in 1984 (AFP/Handout)
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The uncle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has returned home from 36 years of exile to dodge arrest in France, the pro-government al-Watan newspaper reported Friday.

Rifaat al-Assad, 84, arrived in Damascus on Thursday, al-Watan said on its Facebook page, nearly a month after a Paris appeals court upheld a four-year prison sentence issued against him last year for misappropriating public funds in Syria, laundering the spoils and building a vast property portfolio in France with ill-gotten gains.

Formerly Syria's vice president, Rifaat al-Assad left his home country in 1984 after mounting a failed coup against his brother Hafez, who led Syria from 1971 to 2000.

"In order to prevent his imprisonment in France .. President Assad rises above what Rifaat al-Assad has said and done and allows him to return to Syria," al-Watan said.

Rifaat is not expected to take up any political role, al-Watan added.

Dubbed the "Butcher of Hama" for his alleged role in putting down an uprising in central Syria in 1982, Assad has been under investigation in France since 2014.

He was tried for crimes allegedly committed between 1984 and 2016, including aggravated tax fraud and misappropriation of Syrian funds.

A Paris court last June dismissed charges against Assad for the period 1984 to 1996, but found him guilty of organised laundering of funds embezzled from the Syrian public purse between 1996 and 2016. He was also convicted of tax fraud.

Last month, the Paris appeals court upheld the verdict against him.

He may not have to serve in prison given his advanced age, but the confiscation of his French real estate assets, worth an estimated 90 million euros ($106 million), ordered at his initial trial, will now go ahead.

His French fortune includes two townhouses in chic Parisian neighbourhoods, a stud farm, about 40 apartments, and a chateau.

Assad and his family also built up a huge portfolio of properties in Spain, valued at around 695 million euros, which were all seized by the authorities in 2017.

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