08 Nov 2019
A French court on Thursday upheld preliminary criminal charges against one of France’s biggest companies over allegations that it financed the Islamic State and other armed groups in Syria, while putting the lives of its employees there in danger.
In its ruling, the Court of Appeal in Paris also said the company, the multinational cement maker Lafarge, had violated international embargoes as it sought to maintain business in Syria despite a civil war.
But the court rejected a separate, more serious charge that the company was complicit in crimes against humanity after former employees accused Lafarge of abetting terrorist groups operating in the region by funneling financing to them.
The ruling paves the way for a possible future trial over the other charges, which are part of an investigation by the French authorities and were brought last year against Lafarge as well as six former executives, including its former chief executive Bruno Lafont.
The case is the first in France to have led to a criminal inquiry into a company’s liability for its activities abroad.
The Lafarge plant, on Syria’s northern border with Turkey, was shut down after the Islamic State, known as ISIS, attacked it in 2014 as employees fled the factory. It was subsequently converted into a strategic base for the United States military until President Trump withdrew American forces from Syria last month.
“It’s an example to multinationals that might feel encouraged not to act legally responsible for the human rights of its employees in other countries,” said Marie-Laure Guislain, the head of litigation at Sherpa, a French organization that pursues human rights abuses by corporations. Sherpa filed a lawsuit in 2016 on behalf of the former Lafarge employees in Syria.
Ms. Guislain added that the group would appeal the decision to drop the war crimes charge.
Lafarge, which merged with the Swiss cement giant Holcim in 2015, has acknowledged “unacceptable errors committed in Syria” and that supervisors at its headquarters in Paris and in Syria failed to identify breaches of company rules at the Syrian subsidiary. But it has insisted that the company as a whole is not liable.
“The court has come to the same conclusion as us, that there are no elements to charge Lafarge” for crimes against humanity, Christophe Ingrain and Remi Lorrain, lawyers for Lafarge, said in a statement. Lafarge “must be exonerated for other offenses alleged against it,” they added.
The case could take months or even years to go to trial. All of the former Lafarge executives have denied the charges against them. If prosecuted, the executives could face penalties of up to 10 years in jail as well as fines.
By Liz Alderman, The New York Times, 7 November 2019
Read more at The New York Times
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