Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 11 July 2020

Rami Makhlouf: Syrian court orders Syriatel placed under judicial custody

Embattled tycoon's public row with his cousin President Bashar Al Assad escalates

Telecoms operator Syriatel, owned by Syrian President Bashar Al Assad's cousin Rami Makhlouf, is the country's biggest company. AP Photo
Telecoms operator Syriatel, owned by Syrian President Bashar Al Assad's cousin Rami Makhlouf, is the country's biggest company. AP Photo

A Syrian court has ordered that the telecoms operator Syriatel be placed under judicial custody over unpaid taxes, in an escalation of a high-profile row between its owner, prominent businessman Rami Makhlouf, and his cousin President Bashar Al Assad.

Mr Makhlouf, one of Syria's richest men, had his assets ordered seized over alleged back payments to the country's telecoms regulator which it put at 134 billion pounds, or about $77 million (Dh283m) at the current exchange rate on the parallel market.

According to a document posted on the Facebook page of the administrative court, the decision to place Syriatel under judicial custody was taken to "guarantee the rights of the public treasury and the rights of the shareholders in the company".

Once at the heart of Mr Al Assad's inner circle, Mr Makhlouf has called the asset seizure illegal and an attempt by the government to take the company from him. The unprecedented public tussle has uncovered a rare rift in Syria's ruling elite.

Mr Makhlouf addressed the dispute in three video messages posted on Facebook over the past month in which he has appealed directly to Mr Al Assad to help save his firm. In his last appearance, Mr Makhlouf said he had been told to quit as the head of Syriatel.

In a Facebook post on Monday, Mr Makhlouf warned that Syria’s dominant Alawite minority could suffer what he described as an earthquake without him at its business helm. Regional bankers say that besides Syriatel, the country’s largest company, Mr Makhlouf also holds shares of vast assets he manages on behalf of the ruling Assad family through frontmen and business networks.

“Curse me if there will be no divine intervention to stop this farce and shake the earth from underneath the feet of the oppressors,” Mr Makhlouf wrote.

The businessman's whereabouts are not known but a court last month placed him under a travel ban pending settlement of the dispute.

Updated: June 5, 2020 05:53 PM

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