|October 8, 2013|
Previously published on October 2, 2013
This is not the first time TI France and SHERPA have combined to target the alleged proceeds of corruption. As we reported in June 2013, TI France and SHERPA have previously utilised Article 2 of the French Criminal Procedure Code to request investigations in France concerning the assets of the Heads of State of Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Congo and their families. Article 2 has been given a wide interpretation by the French Supreme Court to permit civil party petitions from associations whenever the targeted infraction causes direct damage to the collective interests defended by those associations.
Those historic actions led to a series of challenges by the defendants including the son of President Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, Teodorin. The previous court decisions already set in France may leave Rifaat Assad with limited avenues to challenge the civil society organisations’ actions and subsequent investigation, perhaps meaning he is actually forced to engage with the meat of the investigation itself rather than find technical arguments to derail it.
The complaint apparently alleges that Rifaat Assad’s fortune must have been accumulated by stealing from Syrian public funds and by abusing his position of influence. Rifaat Assad's lawyer, Marcel Ceccaldi, condemned the investigation commenced so many years after his client settled in France. He is quoted as saying: "This is a man who has been here since 1984, who purchased these assets between 1984 and 1986," and noted that Rifaat Assad had also been granted the Legion d'Honneur, France's highest honour, by the then-president, Francois Mitterrand, in 1986. Rifaat's son, Siwar Assad, told France Info radio that the family's wealth was legitimate and promised to cooperate with any investigation. He apparently said that after settling in France his father received funds from "states, leaders and friends abroad". Rifaat’s son added: "We are utterly transparent in our investments, nothing was done in secret, the origins of our funds were completely legal". Clearly, matters are now in the hands of French investigators to determine whether Rifaat Assad’s wealth is legitimate or not.
The ability of civil society in France to be able to effectively as of right instigate investigations of this sort will lead to envious looks from anti-corruption organisations in places like the UK and the US. Whether it leads to a call for change in jurisdictions where such empowering law is unavailable will be interesting, as stakeholders search for better and stronger mechanisms to recover the alleged proceeds of corruption.