French cement behemoth Lafarge could be charged with ‘crimes against humanity’ in Syria’s civil war after the highest court in France on Tuesday overturned a decision by a lower court to dismiss the charges.
Lafarge, now part of Swiss group Holcim, is under formal investigation in France after it acknowledged that its Syrian subsidiary paid middlemen to negotiate with terror groups in their efforts to keep their factory running in the country after conflict erupted in 2011.
While in its internal investigation, the company admitted that its Syrian subsidiary financed armed groups to help protect staff at the plant in Syria, it has rejected a host of charges against it, including that it was complicit in committing ‘crimes against humanity’ by financing the terrorist groups.
In 2019, the Paris Court of Appeal had dismissed the ‘crimes against humanity’ charge, asserting that the financial dealings by the company were not aimed at funding Islamic State’s grisly agenda of torturing and killing innocent people.
However, it did rule that the company be charged on three counts—financing terrorism, violating an EU embargo and endangering the lives of others. The verdict was challenged by 11 former employees of Lafarge Cement Syria(LCS) at the court of Cassation, with the help of NGOs.
On Tuesday, the court of Cassation overturned the lower court’s judgement on complicity, stating that “one can be complicit in crimes against humanity even if one doesn’t have the intention of being associated with the crimes committed.”
“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,” the court observed.
The court also noted that “numerous acts of complicity” would go unpunished if they adopted a more lenient approach in interpreting crimes.
Lafarge is accused of paying over 13 million Euros to ISIS to keep its Jalabiya plant running after other French companies had left the country.
But the ruling does not mean that Lafarge would automatically face trial on the charge of “crimes against humanity”, one of the most serious crimes laid against a French company in a foreign country in recent years.
The court sent the matter back to investigating magistrates to review the complicity charge.
The top court also quashed the lower court’s decision of maintaining the charge of endangering others, asserting that it was unclear whether the French Labour Law could be applied in the current case.
However, the court did uphold the charge of bankrolling terrorism, which Lafarge had tried to have dismissed.
Along with the company, eight Lafarge executives, including former CEO Bruno Laffont, are also charged with financing a terrorist group and/or endangering the lives of others, as per reports.
Lafarge left Syria in September 2014 after the terrorists of the Islamic State captured its plant in Jalabiya, about 15 kilometres northeast of the regional capital Aleppo.
However, Lafarge is not the only company that has been accused of complicity in crimes against humanity for its efforts to continue its operations in a foreign country.
Earlier in 1990s, twelve Nigerians filed a case against energy giant Shell in a US Court, accusing it of assisting extra-judicial killings, torture, rape and crimes against humanity in the Niger Delta. However, in 2013, the US Supreme Court had dismissed the case, saying they did not have jurisdiction in the matter.