The graft trial for the uncle of Syrian President Assad opens in Paris

PARIS: the uncle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad went to trial in Paris on Monday on charges of theft of Syrian state coffers and use of loot to build a real estate empire in France .

The pier was empty when the hearing began, with 82-year-old lawyers citing health problems as the reason for their absence.

"His doctors have recommended that he avoids all stressful situations," lawyer Pierre Cornut-Gentille told the Paris court.

Rifaat al-Assad, dubbed the "Butcher of " for allegedly commanding troops that put down an uprising in central Syria in 1982, has been under investigation in France since 2014.

This year, an investigating judge ordered that he be tried on organizational charges money laundering related to his 90-million-euro ($99.5-million) property portfolio in France .

The trial of the younger brother of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president, is scheduled for December 18.

These are crimes allegedly committed between 1984 and 2016, including aggravated tax fraud and misappropriation of Syrian funds.

Assad, who splits his time between France and Britain, denies the charges.

Formerly Vice President of Syria, Assad left his home country in 1984 after organizing a failed coup against his brother Hafez, who led Syria from 1971 to 2000.

After arriving in Europe, the splendid lifestyle of Rifaat al-Assad, four wives and 16 children soon raised their eyebrows.

His reported French fortune includes two Paris townhouses, one measuring 3,000 square metres (32,000 square feet), as well as a stud farm, a chateau and 7,300 square metres of office space in Lyon.

He and his family also built a large portfolio of 507 properties in Spain, valued at around 695 million euros, according to Spanish legal documents. All properties in that country were confiscated by the authorities in 2017.

Assad has maintained that his lifestyle was made possible by gifts from the Saudi royal family that amounted to more than one million dollars per month.

But despite documents from Assad's lawyers intended to justify donations of nearly $ 25 million between 1984 and 2010, French investigators recorded transfers of only $ 10 million. Saudi Arabia .

This is only the second trial of a foreign dignitary in France on charges related to "ill-gotten gains".

The first, Equatorial Guinea vice-president Teodorin Obiang, received a three-year suspended jail term in October 2017 after being convicted of using public money to fund a jet-set lifestyle in Paris .

Paris has long been a favoured destination for the corrupt gains of wealthy figures linked to political leaders in Africa, particularly in France 's former colonies.