Ill-gotten gains – The Rifaat Al-Assad case: interview with Laura Rousseau (Sherpa)

04 August 2020 –

Cet entretien est disponible en français ici.

Laura Rousseau, Head of Illicit Financial Flows program at Sherpa

Following a complaint filed by the French UNCAC Coalition member organisation Sherpa in 2013, Rifaat Al-Assad, uncle of the current strongman of the Syrian regime Bashar Al-Assad, was recently sentenced by the Paris judicial court to four years in prison for money laundering and embezzlement. His assets, estimated at 100 million euros in France, were confiscated.

Sherpa has been fighting economic crimes and impunity since 2001. Laura Rousseau, head of Sherpa’s Illicit Financial Flows Program and member of the UNCAC Coalition’s Coordination Committee, agreed to comment on the historic Al-Assad conviction and on the challenges related to the restitution of stolen assets.

How was the organisation involved in the litigation process against Rifaat Al-Assad, and how was the case initiated?

Our association, Sherpa, has long been interested in the subject of ill-gotten gains. We had already, in 2007, filed a complaint against several officials.

Therefore, Sherpa, alongside other NGOs, developed a strategic litigation and more closely defined the concept of ill-gotten gains as movable and immovable property acquired by State leaders and financed through the misappropriation of public funds belonging to the respective States.

After reading press articles around ongoing discussions of French parliamentarians who were calling for the freezing of the Assad family’s assets in France (Le Monde, Libération), Sherpa noticed the disproportion between these sources of income and the amount of Rifaat Al Assad’s real estate assets. It became apparent that they were fraudulently acquired. His assets in France are estimated at 100 million euros and 600 million in Spain.

Consequently, Sherpa decided to dig into the case, file a complaint and then file a civil claim.

We filed a complaint on September 13, 2013. The hearing took place in December 2019.

Confiscation is provided for by French law. As soon as the courts pronounce a decision, a transfer of ownership to the State is made.

AGRASC (Agence de Gestion et de Recouvrement des Avoirs Saisis et Confisqués – Seized and Confiscated Assets Management and Recovery Agency in English) is responsible for managing the sale of assets. The assets sold are transferred to the general budget of the State. Once all avenues of appeal have been exhausted, the State can use the assets as it wishes.

If returned, the assets seized in the Al-Assad case are at high risk of falling back into a cycle of corruption. What steps could be taken for a fair return of the assets?

The ultimate objective of the ill-gotten property procedures initiated by Sherpa is the restitution of ill-gotten assets to the population that has been harmed. The issue today is that there is no legal framework allowing for this restitution. The formalities surrounding property confiscations are carried out by the AGRASC, so the risk remains that the money will fall into the French state budget instead of being effectively returned.

The decision to convict Rifaat al Assad, like the one concerning Obiang [the Equatoguinean vice-president] in February 2020 highlights the urgency of setting up a legal framework for the restitution of looted assets in France.

The NGOs Sherpa and Transparency International France call on the government to speed up the drafting of the law on the restitution of assets so that it can be discussed in Parliament as soon as possible. 

“The decision to convict Rifaat al Assad […] highlights the urgency of setting up a legal framework for the restitution of looted assets in France.”

What is the State’s role in monitoring suspicious transactions?

The State contributes in multiple ways. It plays a role at the investigation stage, at the judicial level, and in the seizure and confiscation of assets.

Furthermore, coordination and cooperation between States are essential to determine the origin of the illicit funds, share information that is difficult to obtain given the opacity of the money flows, and cooperate judicially (a strong cooperation between Spain and France has emerged during this case). 

It is necessary for States to coordinate to facilitate the referral of cases to the courts by associations acting as civil parties. This would allow for the circumvention of situations where the public prosecutor’s office is not entirely independent and, therefore, for the prosecution of money laundering by authoritarian regimes, or by European States with little regard for the law.

Finally, coordination between countries must also take place to return the assets. General recommendations on the restitution of assets are currently being considered. Still, a programme of reflection on restitution to the Syrian population must be urgently drawn up because of Syria’s sensitive situation.

Once again, a national, European and international legal framework to define precisely how these assets are to be returned to the populations victims of misappropriation must be adopted. This issue is becoming increasingly urgent as convictions are handed down.

[…] a national, European and international legal framework to define precisely how these assets are to be returned to the populations victims of misappropriation must be adopted.”

Does the role of civil society highlight any shortcomings in the French financial supervision system? Could civil society’s initiative in such cases be a model to be applied abroad? 

The NGO Sherpa made the opening of the investigation possible thanks to its civil party status. Without our NGO’s action, this case would never have been brought to justice.

There are more and more cases of ill-gotten property thanks to the action of NGOs such as Sherpa, supported by human rights defenders present in the states where the misappropriations are committed and who are unable to access justice in their countries. Under French law, a person can request the opening of an investigation by filing a complaint and bringing a civil action. These cases of ill-gotten gains should serve as an example to understand the need to guarantee the admissibility of associations’ complaints before the criminal court. The inertia of a public prosecutor’s office that is not always sufficiently independent is then overcome, especially when high diplomatic interests are involved.

Finally, in the particular and complex Syrian context, collaboration with experts on development issues and Syria should be envisaged to ensure that the return of assets effectively benefits the looted populations and to prevent these ill-gotten assets from falling back into the channels of corruption. Civil society must be involved in the restitution process.

“Civil society must be involved in the restitution process.”

How is this a historic trial?

This case is unique because for the first time in history it indicts a member of the Assad clan which has ruled over Syria with an iron fist for more than forty years.

The judgment shows that no one escapes justice, that there is no impunity. It is an encouraging decision for the victims of embezzlement and a strong message to other countries where similar proceedings are underway.

This lawsuit and court decision show the urgency of setting up a legal framework for the restitution of looted assets in France, but also in other countries. A framework for these cases must also be considered at the level of European and international law. 

This trial has finally brought to light the systemic use of tax havens that allows criminals to launder their money with impunity. The use of these crime concealment tools must be questioned and fought at the international level.

“The judgment shows that no one escapes justice, that there is no impunity.”

Is this case now over for Sherpa, or is there still a role that you and the organisation will continue to play?

Sherpa’s role was crucial at the time when the association filed a complaint and in collaborating with the judiciary at the investigation stage as well as at the time of the trial. As Rifaat Al-Assad has appealed the decision, Sherpa will still have a role to play in the trial.

Secondly, as a legal framework for the restitution of assets does not yet exist in France, Sherpa has an important advocacy role to play to ensure that a legal framework is created. 

Are there other similar ongoing asset recovery cases Sherpa is involved in?

At the moment Sherpa is working with other NGOs on the very practical issue of restitution of assets in Uzbekistan following the court decision in the case of the ill-gotten property of Gulnara Karimova [daughter of former Uzbek leader Islam Karimov].