Decision to drop crimes against humanity charges against Lafarge overturned

French cement company Lafarge has had a lower court decision to dismiss charges of complicity for crimes against humanity overturned by a top French court.

The company is accused of paying nearly 13 million euros (£11.17m) to jihadist groups, including the Islamic State (IS) to keep its cement factory in northern Syria running through the early years of the country’s war.

Lafarge, which merged in 2015 with Swiss group Holcim, has acknowledged that its Syrian subsidiary paid middlemen to negotiate with armed groups to allow the movement of staff and goods inside the war zone.

Rights groups including the Berlin-based European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and France’s Sherpa, which brought claims against Lafarge, alleged the group bought raw materials and oil from armed fighters and made payments for the safe passage of workers through checkpoints.

But Lafarge denies any responsibility for the money winding up in the hands of terrorist groups and has fought to have the case dropped.

In 2019, The Paris Court of Appeal had dismissed the crimes against humanity charge, saying it accepted that the payments were not aimed at abetting IS’s gruesome agenda of executions and torture.

However, it ruled that the company be prosecuted on three other charges — financing terrorism, violating an EU embargo and endangering the lives of others.

Eleven former employees of Lafarge Cement Syria (LCS) challenged the decision at the Court of Cassation, with the backing of NGOs.

Quashing the lower court’s finding on complicity, France’s highest court of appeal ruled Tuesday 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,” it added.

The judges added that “numerous acts of complicity” would go unpunished if courts adopted a more lenient interpretation.

The ruling does not mean however that Lafarge will automatically face trial on the most serious accusations laid against a French company for its actions in a foreign country in recent years.

The court instead referred the matter back to investigating magistrates to reconsider the complicity charge.

The court did, however, uphold the charge of financing terrorism, which Lafarge had fought to have dismissed.