France’s Lafarge loses ruling in Syria ‘crimes against humanity’ case

Sept 8, 2021: France’s top court on Tuesday quashed a lower court’s decision to drop charges against Lafarge, a major cement company, for involvement in crimes against humanity in Syria’s civil war.

The Court of Cassation’s decision is a major blow to Lafarge, who is accused of paying terrorist groups, including Islamic State (IS), about 13 million euros to keep his cement factory in northern Syria open for years during the country’s civil war.

Lafarge’s lawyer declined an AFP request for comment.

Lafarge, which merged with Swiss group Hocim ​​in 2015, has admitted that their Syrian subsidiary paid middlemen to negotiate with armed groups to allow the movement of personnel and equipment with the militants.  But it denies any responsibility for running out of money in the hands of terrorist groups and has fought to end the case.

The Paris Court of Appeal rejected allegations of crimes against humanity in 2019, saying it accepted that the payments were not intended to provoke IS’s horrific agenda of executions and torture.

However, it ordered the company to be prosecuted on three other charges – financing terrorism, violating EU sanctions and endangering the lives of others. Eleven former employees of Lafarge Cement Syria (LCS), backed by NGOs, challenged the decision in the Court of Cassation. 

Quashing the finding of complicity by the lower court, France’s highest court ruled on Tuesday that “one can participate in crimes against humanity even if one does not intend to commit crimes.”

“Knowingly paying several million dollars to an organisation whose sole purpose was exclusively criminal suffices to constitute complicity, regardless of whether the party concerned was acting to pursue a commercial activity,” it added.

The judges added that “multiple acts of complication” would not be punished if the courts were more lenient.

However, the ruling does not mean that Lafarge will automatically face trial for the most serious allegations made against a French company in a foreign country in recent years.

Instead, the court referred the matter to the investigating magistrate for reconsideration of the complication charge. He also quashed the lower court’s decision to uphold the charge of endangering others, saying it was unclear whether French labor law applied to the case and that the question would be referred to investigators.

However, the court upheld the charge of financing terrorism, which Lafarge had fought to dismiss. In addition to the company, eight Lafarge executives, including former CEO Bruno Laffont, have been charged with financing a terrorist group and / or endangering the lives of others.

Lafarge finally withdrew from Syria in September 2014 when IS captured its plant in Jalabiya, 150 kilometers (95 miles) northeast of the regional capital Aleppo.

The French company is not the first multinational to be accused of engaging in crimes against humanity in a country where people have suffered serious human rights abuses.

But such cases are rarely heard. Twelve Nigerians took Anglo-Dutch energy giant Shell to a US court on charges of extrajudicial killing, torture, rape and crimes against humanity in the Niger Delta in the 1990s.

The US Supreme Court dismissed the case in 2013, saying US courts had no jurisdiction over the matter.

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