Assad cousin wins case to unfreeze Swiss millions

AP News
Posted: Feb 09, 2012 3:19 PM
Assad cousin wins case to unfreeze Swiss millions

A cousin of Syria's President Bashar Assad has won a legal bid to unfreeze euro3 million ($4 million) held in bank accounts in Switzerland, overturning a last-ditch effort by Swiss prosecutors to block the release of the funds on suspicion of money laundering.

The decision last month by Switzerland's top criminal court is a victory for Hafez Makhlouf, who was added to a Swiss government sanctions list in response to Syria's brutal crackdown on opposition protesters.

Swiss authorities froze the funds on Makhlouf's four Geneva bank accounts in May, but four months later reversed their decision after he claimed the money had already been promised as part of a property deal a month before it was blocked.

Federal prosecutors sought to prevent the release of the funds by launching a money laundering investigation in September.

In its verdict, the Federal Criminal Court agreed with Makhlouf's argument that prosecutors had previously dismissed money laundering suspicions. The court ordered the funds unblocked and granted Makhlouf 1,800 francs ($1,975) in damages.

The verdict was first reported Thursday by Swiss news website and is available online.

Switzerland has blocked some 50 million Swiss francs ($55 million) linked to senior regime officials, including Assad.

The sanctions notice on Makhlouf says he is "involved in violence against demonstrators" and close to Assad's younger brother Maher, believed to be leading the crackdown against the opposition. The U.N. estimates more than 5,400 people have died in the crackdown over the past year.

The Swiss Federal Prosecutor's Office said in an email Thursday that it would not appeal the decision to Switzerland's supreme court.

Makhlouf's Swiss lawyer, Eric Hess, declined to comment.