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Switzerland charges Rifaat Assad with war crimes in Syria’s Hama massacre

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's brother, Rifaat al-Assad, has also been convicted of financial crimes in France.

Switzerland charged the uncle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with war crimes on Tuesday, becoming the second European country to take such action against the former army officer.

Rifaat al-Assad, 86, was charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, Switzerland’s Office of the Attorney General said in a statement. Assad allegedly ordered homicides, torture and illegal detentions of thousands of civilians in 1982 as commander of the government’s defense brigades and operations in central Syria’s Hama, according to the office.

The Syrian government did not immediately comment on the charges.

The office began a criminal investigation into Assad after a 2013 filing by the Geneva-based organization TRIAL International. Switzerland can initiate legal proceedings against Assad under the principle of universal jurisdiction for war crimes and because he was in Switzerland when the investigation began, according to the statement.

The charges pertain to the 1982 Hama massacre in the eponymous central Syrian city. The Muslim Brotherhood had been leading an uprising against the government of late President Hafez al-Assad, Rifaat’s older brother, at the time. The revolt was crushed when forces led by Rifaat al-Assad besieged and then stormed Hama. The Syrian Network for Human Rights estimates that between 30,000 and 40,000 civilians were killed in the assault.

Assad was exiled from Syria in 1984 after a failed coup attempt against his brother. He traveled to Switzerland and later France before returning to Syria in 2021. That same year, the Swiss attorney general’s office attempted to issue an arrest warrant for him, but the Justice Ministry found that the country did not have jurisdiction to do so. A Swiss court overturned the ministry in 2022, allowing the country to issue an arrest warrant, according to Agence France-Presse.

Rifaat al-Assad last appeared in public in a photo with the current president and first lady Asma al-Assad in Damascus last April. It remains unclear if he is now residing in Syria or elsewhere in the region. 

Though Assad is not likely to return to Switzerland for the trial, Swiss law allows trials in abstentia under certain conditions.

TRIAL International praised the news of the charges against Assad.

“With today’s indictment, the victims can finally look forward to justice being done,” said the organization in a statement. “Rifaat al-Assad, the uncle of current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, will be one of the highest-ranking government officials ever to be tried for international crimes based on the principle of universal jurisdiction.”

Why it matters: There have been several attempts by European governments to try Syrian individuals for war crimes in the past few years. Unlike the case against Assad, the other proceedings have been related to the ongoing Syrian civil war.

The following is a breakdown of some of the recent legal proceedings in Europe against Syrians accused of war crimes:

  • Belgium detained a man in January on suspicion of committing war crimes while in a pro-Syrian government militia.
  • A Dutch court convicted a pro-Syrian government militia member of war crimes in January.
  • A French court issued an arrest warrant for the president in November for complicity in war crimes.

Others in Europe have been prosecuted for allegedly fighting in Syrian rebel groups. In 2014, Germany charged a man with belonging to a terrorist organization for his alleged involvement with the Syrian rebel group Junud al-Sham.

Know more: Switzerland is not the only country where Assad is in legal trouble. In 2021, a French court upheld a four-year prison sentence leveled against him for financial crimes. Assad was convicted of misappropriating Syrian funds and using them to buy a vast amount of property in France, according to AFP.