Rifaat Al-Assad was born on 22 August 1937 in Qardaha, in Northwestern Syria. He is the younger brother of the former President of Syria, Hafez Al-Assad, and the uncle of the incumbent President Bashar Al-Assad. He was a member of the Central Commandment of the Baath party, the commander of the elite defense troops of the Syrian regime, the “Defense Brigades”, from 1971 to 1984, and the Vice-President of Syria from 1984 to 1998.
Rifaat Al-Assad allegedly took part in the planning and execution of the massacres of Tadmor and Hama in the 1980s, in the context of the non-international armed conflict between the government and the armed factions of the Muslim Brotherhood.
On 27 June 1980, the Defense Brigades under his command allegedly entered the Tadmor prison (also known as the Palmyra prison) where the prisoners suspected of having ties with the opposition were held. The troops allegedly killed as many as 1000 prisoners.
In addition, as a commander of the “Defense Brigades”, Rifaat Al-Assad allegedly took part in the massacre of thousands of people in Hama. In February 1982, government forces including the Defense Brigades besieged the city of Hama, following its takeover by the Fighting Vanguard, a spinoff of the Muslim Brotherhood. Government forces surrounded and indiscriminately shelled the city with heavy artillery and tanks which resulted in an excessive number of civilian casualties. The attacks lasted throughout the month of February 1982. Between 10’000 and 40’000 people have allegedly been killed, mainly civilians. Reportedly, whole areas of the city were destroyed, including large parts of the old city.
Perceived by many as the probable successor of his older brother, he was later suspected of preparing a coup against the latter and was forced into exile in 1984. Since then, he has lived in various European countries where he has invested his substantial personal fortune.
In November 2013, after receiving information about the presence of Rifaat Al-Assad in Switzerland, the non-governmental organization TRIAL International filed a criminal complaint with the Office of the Attorney General (OAG), concerning the 1982 Hama massacre on the basis of universal jurisdiction. In December 2013, the OAG opened a criminal investigation into alleged war crimes. In August 2014, one victim joined the proceedings as a civil party.
In December 2015, upon his return to Switzerland, TRIAL International and the victim urged the authorities to arrest Rifaat Al-Assad. After the authorities refused to do so, the victim filed a submission requesting an arrest as a provisional measure with the Federal Criminal Court (FCC). Two days later, the FCC ordered the OAG to proceed to the hearing of Rifaat Al-Assad.
In June 2016, Rifaat Al-Assad was indicted in France for embezzlement of public funds, money laundering and undeclared work. Some of his assets, worth several million euros, were seized in France, in Spain and in the United Kingdom.
In 2016 and 2017, TRIAL International filed several additional submissions, in particular concerning the crimes committed in the Tadmor prison. The NGO also submitted a substantial amount of evidence relating to the case as well as a list of witnesses willing to testify. Since the beginning of the proceedings, six victims joined the case.
On 25 September 2017, a group of lawyers made publicly known the existence of the criminal proceedings taking place in Switzerland since 2013 against Rifaat Al-Assad. The group also filed an action with the Federal Court for denial of justice due to the length of the proceedings.
In 2018, the Federal Court rejected the action for denial of justice considering that the length of the proceedings was justified by the complexity of the case.
The Attorney General in charge of the case initially refused to grant anonymity to two other victims despite the fact that their families were still in Syria. Subsequently, the Attorney General rejected a complaint concerning the massacre in Tadmor prison, justifying the decision by the fact that RIfaat Al-Assad was not on the Swiss territory when the complaint was lodged. On 17 September 2018, the victim appealed the decision of the prosecutor to reject the complaint concerning the Tadmor massacre. However, the Court confirmed the decision of the prosecutor noting that the Swiss authorities can only open an investigation if there is an information that a suspect will be in Switzerland in the near future.
In August 2018, a letter signed by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment and the Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and lawyers was issued by the United Nations. The letter strongly criticized Switzerland for its lack of independence due to the different political interferences in the cases of Rifaat Al-Assad and Khaled Nezzar.
The investigation is ongoing.