A French cement factory will be accused of complicity in human rights violations

A French court on Wednesday handed down an unprecedented decision that will allow Lafarge, one of France’s largest companies, to be charged with aiding and abetting crimes against humanity after being accused of financing terrorist groups, including the Islamic State, while operating in Syria during the country’s bloody civil war.

The judgment of the Paris Court of Appeal against Lafarge, a global cement manufacturer, is the first time that a company, as a legal person, has been indicted in France for complicity in human rights violations. Judgment sets the stage for a long legal battle in a scandal involving top corporate executives known in France as the “Lafarge affair”.

A French judicial investigation revealed that between 2012 and 2014, the company, through its Syrian subsidiary Lafarge Cement Syria, had paid up to 13 million euros (about 17.5 million dollars to the time) to various armed groups, including the Islamic State. The subsidiary made the payments in order to keep its cement plant in northeast Syria running despite the ongoing war, kidnappings and security threats facing its employees, according to the investigation.

A New York Times investigation showed that Lafarge was paying intermediaries who were suspected of channeling payments to armed groups, and possibly the Islamic State, in an effort to allow the factory and its employees to continue to operate without interference.

Eight former corporate executives, including two former CEOs, were indicted in 2018 for financing terrorism and endangering the lives of their workers in Syria. All of these officials resigned and the company merged with Swiss cement giant Holcim in 2015.

If found guilty on the charge, the former officials could face sentences of up to 10 years in prison.

The penalties for a company accused of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity were not immediately clear.

Holcim had no immediate comment after Wednesday’s decision. The company said it had nothing to do with the actions of former Lafarge executives and that the events described by the forensic investigation were concealed from Holcim during the merger and forensic audit that preceded it .

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 11 former Syrian employees by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights and Sherpa, a French anti-corruption organization that prosecutes corporate humanitarian abuses. The employees, in the lawsuit, claim the company ignored the dangers they faced and pressured them to continue working even as the civil war raged around them.

The Paris Court of Appeal ruled last year that Lafarge could not be charged with complicity in crimes against humanity. But after France’s highest court, the Cour de cassation, ordered the appeals court to review its judgment, the lower court backtracked on Wednesday.

French forensic investigators said that while Lafarge was evacuating top executives from the factory, it was keeping Syrian employees there, in part in the hope of keeping business going for Syria’s eventual reconstruction after the war.

But in 2014, as fighting neared the factory, located on Syria’s northern border with Turkey, a number of workers said they were forced to flee the factory just before Islamic State don’t attack him. The factory was then closed and turned into a strategic base for the US military until Washington withdrew its forces from Syria in 2019.

The lawsuit highlights the costs and complexity of doing business in war-torn regions, a challenge faced by companies around the world, especially those in the energy and industrial sectors. In Lafarge’s case, these compromises exposed it to a French criminal investigation and claims by employees that the company was unaware of the dangers they faced.

“This decision should be a strong wake-up call for companies doing business in conflict zones,” said Cannelle Lavite, co-director of the Business and Human Rights program at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. “If they enable or fuel crimes – even if they only pursue business objectives – they could be complicit and should be held accountable,” she said.

The case could take months or even years to go to trial. All former Lafarge executives have denied the charges against them.

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