French court upholds Syria 'crimes against humanity' charge against Lafarge

Lafarge has acknowledged that it paid nearly S$19 million to keep its Syrian cement factory running in 2013 and 2014. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP, REUTERS) - A French appeals court confirmed on Wednesday (May 18) a charge of complicity in crimes against humanity against the cement group Lafarge over alleged payoffs to ISIS and other militant groups during Syria's civil war, paving the way for an eventual trial.

Rights activists hope the case will serve as a bellwether for prosecuting multinationals accused of turning a blind eye to terrorist operations in exchange for continuing to operate in war-torn countries.

Lafarge, which became part of Swiss-listed Holcim in 2015, has been the subject of an investigation into its operations in Syria since 2016, in one of the most extensive corporate criminal proceedings in recent French legal history.

Lafarge has acknowledged that it paid nearly €13 million (S$19 million) to middlemen to keep its Syrian cement factory running in 2013 and 2014, long after other French firms had pulled out of the country.

The company contends that it had no responsibility for the money winding up in the hands of terrorist groups, and in 2019 it won a court ruling that threw out the charge of complicity in crimes against humanity.

But that ruling was overturned by France's Supreme Court, which ordered a retrial in September 2021, and the decision on Wednesday means that a judge could order Lafarge and eight of its executives, including former CEO Bruno Lafont, to stand trial.

The appeals court sided with prosecutors who said Lafarge had "financed, via its subsidiaries, Islamic State operations with several millions of euros in full awareness of its activities".

It also upheld charges of financing terrorism and endangering the lives of others for putting its Syrian employees at risk as ISIS insurgents took over large swathes of the country, before Lafarge abandoned its cement plant in Jalabiya, near Aleppo, in September 2014.

Lafarge to appeal

The company had invested €680 million in the construction of the plant, which was completed in 2010 - just a year before the outbreak of the ongoing war that is estimated to have killed more than half a million people.

Holcim said the company would appeal the court's decision.

"We firmly believe that this offence should not be held against Lafarge, which will file an appeal," the group added.

That appeal will be filed on Thursday, one of the group's lawyers, Christophe Ingrain, told AFP.

The case was launched in 2017 by former Lafarge Cement Syria (LCS) employees backed by NGOs, and later joined by dozens of former workers at the site.

"This is one more step against impunity for the worst crimes by economic players - today it's no longer possible to hide behind the fig leaf of orchestrated ignorance," said Joseph Breham, a lawyer for around 100 former employees.

Mathieu Bagard and Elise Le Gall, lawyers for another group of workers, called it a "relief" for those who faced death as ISIS fighters took control of areas surrounding the Jalabiya site, "even as all expat employees were definitively evacuated in 2012".

Should Lafarge be indicted, it would set a precedent as no French firm has been tried in connection to crimes against humanity.

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