President Bashar Assad allowed his exiled uncle back into Syria to avoid serving a four-year prison term in France, where he had spent more than 30 years, a Syrian pro-government newspaper has reported.
Rifaat Assad’s lawyer confirmed his client has left France, denying he fled French justice.
Assad, 84, was sentenced last year for illegally using Syrian state funds to build a French real estate empire. He did not attend the trial because he was in poor health, and a French appeals court has upheld the sentence.
Assad’s lawyer took the case to France’s highest court, which is yet to render its ruling.
Al-Watan, a pro-Syrian government newspaper, reported the return of the elder Assad, who fled Syria in 1984 after he led a failed coup attempt against his brother, late President Hafez Assad. Rifaat Assad had served as a vice president and a top commander in the Syrian army.
In 1986, he received France’s highest distinction, the Legion of Honor, which was widely criticised.
The paper published late on Friday said President Bashar Assad has forgiven his uncle. It said he was allowed to return to Syria on Thursday to avoid serving time in France and after his properties in Europe were confiscated.
Rifaat Assad “never fled French justice, and remains free in his movements to this day,” his French lawyer Cedric Antony-Btesh said in a written statement to The Associated Press.
“For seven years he responded to all summons and requests from the authorities to prove his innocence.
“At 84 years old, his medical state – which already did not allow him to participate in his trial – would be incompatible with incarceration.”
Rifaat Assad was nicknamed “the Butcher of Hama” after human rights groups alleged he supervised an assault that crushed a 1982 uprising in the west-central Syrian province of Hama. He has denied any role in what came to be known as the Hama massacre.
He has also been linked to the killings of hundreds of prisoners and Syrian army abuses in Lebanon in the 1970s and early 1980s.