Lafarge can be charged with ‘complicity in crimes against humanity’ over Syria plant, French court says By Reuters

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© Reuters. An exterior view of the Lafarge Cement plant, owned by LafargeHolcim, in the central England village of Cauldon, Britain, September 17, 2021. REUTERS/John Geddie/ File Photo

By Tassilo Hummel

PARIS (Reuters) – France’s highest court on Tuesday rejected a request by French cement maker Lafarge to dismiss charges of complicity in crimes against humanity as part of an investigation over how it kept its factory running in Syria after war broke out in 2011.

The ruling, which upheld an earlier decision by a lower court, is not a verdict on guilt.

It is procedural, and means the years-long probe into the company’s criminal liability on the grounds of the highly symbolic crimes against humanity charges can continue.

It is still unclear when the investigation will be wrapped up and whether prosecutors will eventually decide to send the case to court for a ruling on the substance of the accusations.

The company did score a partial win as the court dropped charges of endangering the life of its staff.

Lafarge in a statement called the decision a ‘legacy issue’ which it was addressing ‘through the legal process in France’, and did not provide further comment.

The French firm, which became part of Swiss-listed Holcim (SIX:) 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.

ISLAMIST GROUPS

The cement maker has previously admitted, after its own internal investigation, that its Syrian subsidiary paid armed groups to help protect staff at the plant amidst the civil war that had shaken the country for years.

U.S. prosecutors said Lafarge, through intermediaries, paid Islamic State and al Nusra Front the equivalent of approximately $5.92 million between 2013 and 2014 to allow employees, customers and suppliers to pass through checkpoints after civil conflict broke out in Syria.

But in a fierce legal battle, involving dozens of lawyers and thousands of pages of documents, Lafarge has been rejecting some of the charges French prosecutors have been looking at, including that it was complicit in crimes against humanity committed by the Islamist groups.

The company had argued French authorities had no formal jurisdiction for prosecuting charges of war crime involvement abroad, which the court rejected.

But the company also contested it could be guilty of endangering the lives of its local staff by keeping employees in their jobs amid a deteriorating safety situation.

Lafarge had stated there was no special obligation to protect them as French labour law wasn’t applicable and the Cour de Cassation on Tuesday followed those arguments.

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