EU imposes sanctions on Assad's wife, relatives

March 23, 2012 - 10:56 AM
MIDEAST SYRIA ASMA ASSAD

FILE - Asma Assad, the wife of Syrian President Bashar Assad, poses for the camera on in this May 20, 2007 file photo. An EU official said Thursday March 23, 2012 a total of four members of the Assad family, along with eight government ministers, will be targeted in the latest round of sanctions aimed at stopping the violent crackdown on members of the Syrian opposition. (AP Photo, File)

BRUSSELS (AP) — EU foreign ministers imposed sanctions Friday on Asma Assad, the stylish, British-born wife of the Syrian president, banning her from traveling to European Union countries and freezing any assets she may have there.

The foreign ministers also imposed the same sanctions on President Bashar Assad's mother, sister and sister-in-law, and eight government ministers, in a continuing attempt to stop the bloody crackdown on opposition in the country.

In addition, the assets of two Syrian companies have been frozen, an EU official said. Bashar Assad himself has been the subject of EU sanctions since May.

Also Friday, the United Nations' top human rights body sharply condemned the crackdown and the U.N. announced that the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan, would travel to Russia and China for more talks aimed at resolving the crisis peacefully.

The U.N. estimates that more than 8,000 people have been killed since an uprising began in Syria a year ago.

The EU has imposed 12 previous rounds of sanctions against the Syrian regime, yet the crackdown has only intensified.

But French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said he believes the regime is getting weaker. "Their economic situation becomes ever more difficult. Syria has few reserves," Juppe told reporters. "We think its economic situation will become untenable."

Asma Assad, 36, was born in London, spent much of her life there, and has British citizenship. She has been seen as the softer face of the ruling family — an attractive and refined woman dubbed "chic" by France's Elle magazine and "sexy" by The Sun, Britain's top-selling tabloid.

In thousands of personal e-mails apparently intercepted by the Syrian opposition and published in newspapers earlier this month, Mrs. Assad demonstrated a love of expensive furniture, fine jewelry and Christian Louboutin shoes. In one email she was reported to have ordered €35,000 ($46,300) worth of furniture and candlesticks from a Paris boutique.

"We had a certain number of indications — I am sure it has not escaped you — how the wife of President Assad uses her money. It is perhaps this that pushed us to toughen the sanctions," Juppe said.

A month before the start of the Syrian regime's brutal repression, Vogue magazine praised her for her charity work, calling her "A Rose of the Desert."

Asma Assad, who is of Syrian heritage, moved to the country in 2000 to marry the president, who had previously been an ophthalmologist in Britain.

Britain's Home Office said Friday that a British citizen subject to a EU travel ban could not be refused entry into the country.

But British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that "given that we are imposing an asset freeze on all of these individuals and a travel ban on other members of the same family and the regime, we are not expecting Mrs. Assad to try to travel to the United Kingdom at the moment."

Annan and two aides will go to Moscow and Beijing to press the case for his six-point plan, said his spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi. Western countries have pushed for U.N. Security Council action, but Russia and China have twice vetoed resolutions criticizing Assad's regime.

"Negotiations are at a very delicate stage. He's not going to mediate through the media," Fawzi said of Annan. "The crisis on the ground is severe. We have to make progress on the ground soon. Every minute counts."

Fawzi told reporters Friday that Annan's team is "currently studying the Syrian responses carefully and negotiations with Damascus continue."

On Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council issued a nonbinding statement calling for a cease-fire and endorsing Annan's plan, which includes continued talks and a daily two-hour halt in the fighting to provide aid.

Hague, speaking in Brussels, where the EU foreign ministers are meeting, said Friday that it is very important to increase pressure on the Syrian regime. "Their behavior continues to be murdering and totally unacceptable in the eyes of the world," he said.

In Geneva, on Friday, the 47-member U.N. Human Rights Council voted 41 to three in favor of an EU-sponsored resolution that was backed by Arab nations and the United States. China, Russia and Cuba voted against. Two countries abstained and one didn't vote.

The resolution condemns "widespread, systematic and gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms perpetrated by the Syrian authorities," including summary executions, torture and sexual abuse of detainees and children.

It also condemns "the deliberate destruction of hospitals and clinics, the obstruction and denial of medical assistance to the injured and sick, and the raids and killing of wounded protesters in both public and private hospitals."

The vote extends the mandate of a U.N. expert panel charged with reporting on alleged abuses in the country.

U.S. Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe called the Geneva-based council's action an important development.

"For the first time, the council has asked its team of investigators to provide continuous mapping of both human rights violations and casualties," she said. "The council has also asked the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to ensure the safe and secure storage of all evidence of human rights violations gathered. ... This is the first time such a request has been included in a Human Rights Council resolution."

Syria's ambassador, Fayssal al-Hamwi, rejected Friday's vote as "biased."

"It does not reflect the reality on the ground, on the contrary," he told the meeting.

The council's decisions aren't legally binding, but they are seen as an important indicator of the international community's stance on human rights issues.

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Heilprin reported from Geneva. Raf Casert in Brussels, Robert Barr in London, Elizabeth Kennedy in Beirut and Raphael Satter in Paris contributed to this report. Follow Don Melvin on Twitter at http://twitter.com/Don_Melvin