Syrian ex-VP Rifaat al-Assad indicted for war crimes


The Office of the Attorney General (OAG)Ā of SwitzerlandĀ indicted former Syrian vice president Rifaat al-Assad on March 12, referring him to the Federal Criminal Court for trial. The OAG accusesĀ al-Assad of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity while serving as commander of a military operationĀ in the city of Hama in February 1982. The OAG charged al-Assad with ordering homicides, acts of torture, cruel treatment and illegal detentions against civilians during the operation, which came to be known as the Hama Massacre. Government forces had been deployed to Hama to suppress the Islamist opposition, particularly a faction of the Muslim Brotherhood. The OAG estimates theĀ month-long operation led to between 3,000 and 6,000 deaths in the city, the majority civilians.

Advocacy group Trial International initially filed a complaint against al-Assad in Switzerland in 2013, and the OAG initiated criminal proceedings soon after. Al-Assad, who was residing in France, refused to testify before authorities in Switzerland, and fled to Syria in October 2021 after receiving a four-year prison sentence by French courts for embezzlement. The OAG issued an international arrest warrant forĀ him in November 2021.

Rifaat al-Assad, who is the uncle of current Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, has been called the “Butcher of Hama” for his involvement in the 1982 massacre.

Survivors of the Hama massacre have hailed the indictment as progress amid their long wait for justice. One of the three plaintiffs in the case said:

At the beginning, I could not even dream about…Rifaat al-Assad being brought to trial. The indictment shows that such powerful persons can be brought to justice and I want everyone to know what the al-Assad regime did to the Syrian people. My fight is for all the Syrians.

While the acts in question took place over 40 years ago, there is no statute of limitations for war crimes. The case was brought under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows for the prosecution of serious offenses against international law, even when those crimes were committed in another country. Al-Assad’s lawyers stated in response to the indictment that al-Assad “has always denied any involvement in the acts of which he is accused in these proceedings.”

From Jurist, March 13. Used with permission.

See our last reports onĀ Rifaat al-Assad, the Hama Massacre, andĀ  efforts to bring war crimes charges against Bashar Assad

Photo of Hama via TRIAL International