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Lafarge can be charged with 'complicity in crimes against humanity', French court says

Published 01/16/2024, 08:29 AM
Updated 01/16/2024, 10:01 AM
© 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
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By Tassilo Hummel

PARIS (Reuters) -France's highest court on Tuesday rejected a request from French cement maker Lafarge that it dismiss charges of complicity in crimes against humanity as part of an enquiry into how the group kept its factory running in Syria after war broke out in 2011.

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

But it means a multi-year investigation into the company's criminal liability on the grounds of alleged, highly symbolic crimes against humanity charges can continue.

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

The company's court action was successful in part in that the court dropped charges of endangering the life of its staff.

Lafarge in a statement said the decision was a "legacy issue" that it was addressing "through the legal process in France". It did not provide further comment.

The company, which became part of Swiss-listed Holcim (SIX:HOLN) in 2015, has been the subject of an investigation into its operations in Syria since 2016, one of the most extensive corporate criminal proceedings in recent French legal history.

ISLAMIST GROUPS

Anna Kiefer, a lawyer for French campaign group Sherpa, which had lodged a criminal complaint against Lafarge, said the court's decision was a "partial victory".

"The confirmation of the indictment for complicity in crimes against humanity is a key step towards Lafarge one day being tried for these acts," she said.

"However, the annulment of the indictment for endangering the lives of others is a major setback for the recognition of the risks that Lafarge posed to Syrian employees."

The cement maker, has admitted, following its own internal investigation, that its Syrian subsidiary paid armed groups to help protect staff at the plant in a country shaken by years of civil war.

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 war broke out in Syria.

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

The company said France was not the jurisdiction for the prosecution of charges of involvement in war crimes abroad, an argument the court rejected.

© 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

The company also denied it could be guilty of endangering the lives of its local staff by keeping employees in their jobs when the safety situation deteriorated.

The top court agreed agreed with the company's argument that it could not be prosecuted for endangering the lives of staff on the basis of French labour law, as that legislation did not apply to local staff.

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