Rifaat al-Assad is accused of ordering crimes as a commander in Hama in February 1982, Swiss attorney general says.

Swiss federal prosecutors have referred Syria’s ex-Vice President Rifaat al-Assad, the uncle of the country’s current president, for trial on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed more than four decades ago.

The attorney general’s office said on Tuesday the 86-year-old was accused of the crimes in February 1982 while serving as commander of the defence brigades that carried out an attack in the Syrian city of Hama during a conflict between the military and the opposition. Security forces killed thousands to crush a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the central city that year.

“The accused is charged with ordering homicides, acts of torture, cruel treatments and illegal detentions … in his capacity as commander of the defence brigades … and commander of operations in Hama,” the office said in a statement.

It said the alleged “war crimes and crimes against humanity” he was being charged with had taken place “within the context of the armed conflict and the widespread and systematic attack launched against the population of the city of Hama”.

According to the indictment, the conflict is estimated to have caused between 3,000 and 60,000 deaths in Hama, most of them civilians.

Prosecutors will present their case to the federal criminal court in the southern city of Bellinzona, the attorney general’s office said, without specifying a date.

Even if convicted, al-Assad is unlikely to serve time in Switzerland.

After he was convicted in France of illegal use of Syrian state funds and sentenced to four years in prison, his nephew, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, allowed him back into war-torn Syria, ending his more than 30 years of exile in France.

The complaint against him was first filed in 2013 by TRIAL International, a rights group that works with victims and pushes Switzerland to prosecute alleged international criminals.

The criminal proceedings in Switzerland were finally initiated under so-called international jurisdiction, which allows countries to prosecute alleged crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide regardless of where they were committed.

Swiss authorities determined that al-Assad was in Switzerland when the official probe was launched by investigators in the country.

Under Switzerland’s former Military Criminal Code, war crimes have been considered criminal offences in the country since 1968, regardless of where they were committed and the nationality of the offenders or the victims.

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