Swiss issue international warrant for Assad uncle over 1980s war crimes
A Swiss court last year ordered an international arrest warrant for the uncle of Syria President Bashar al-Assad for war crimes allegedly committed in the 1980s, according to the ruling only published on Wednesday.
The decision was published a year after Switzerland's Federal Criminal Court ordered the Federal Department of Justice and Police (FDJP) to issue the warrant.
The office of the Swiss attorney general had asked that the ruling be kept secret for fear that Rifaat al-Assad might take measures to dodge arrest, the Keystone-ATS news agency reported.
The attorney general's office had already in 2021 requested the issuance of an international arrest warrant for the 85-year-old, but the justice ministry had baulked, arguing Switzerland did not have jurisdiction to pursue him.
At the time, it pointed out that he was neither a Swiss citizen, nor residing in the country, and that no Swiss citizens were among the victims of the 1982 massacre in the Syrian city of Hama, which the accusations centre around.
But the court did not share that interpretation, highlighting that Rifaat al-Assad had been staying at a Geneva hotel when Swiss prosecutors first launched their investigation into him in 2013.
That presence was enough, according to the court, to give Switzerland jurisdiction to pursue him over alleged war crimes, including the issuance of an international arrest warrant.
The warrant is meanwhile likely to go unheeded: The younger brother of former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad returned to Syria in 2021, after 37 years in exile.
Rifaat al-Assad, who is separately implicated in French and Spanish corruption cases, was forced into exile in 1984 after a failed attempt to overthrow his brother.
The complaint against Rifaat al-Assad was first filed a decade ago by TRIAL International, a rights group that works with victims and pushes Switzerland to prosecute alleged international criminals.
TRIAL said that much of the evidence it had compiled against him relates to his role in suppressing the 1982 Hama rebellion, where thousands of people were estimated to have been killed.
He was at the time in command of the Syrian Defense Forces, which is accused of "executions, enforced disappearances, rape and torture on an unimaginable scale", according to TRIAL, citing estimates that as many as 40,000 people were killed in the span of three weeks.
The organisation called in a statement Wednesday on Swiss authorities to "swiftly indict and bring to trial the man nicknamed the 'Butcher of Hama'."
"It is to be welcomed that the prosecuting authorities have finally decided to request Mr al-Assad's extradition, although it is regrettable that we had to wait until his return to Syria before demanding he appear before the Swiss courts," Benoit Meystre, TRIAL's legal advisor, said in the statement.