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Lafarge loses bid to dismiss crimes against humanity charges before French Supreme Court

Published by MAC on 2021-09-08
Source: Sherpa, France 24, Bloomberg

In connection to payments made to armed groups in Syria.

The decision is deemed crucial for corporate accountability and follows a criminal complaint filed in 2016 by eleven former employees of Lafarge, together with NGOs Sherpa and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights.

“Lafarge was not just doing business, but recklessly put the lives of me and my colleagues at risk – just for the sake of financial profits”, says Mohammad, a former employee of Lafarge in Syria and plaintiff in the case.

The French ruling adds to Holcim’s Syria-related woes, which extend to the U.S. In its first-half earnings report published in July, the company said it has also received “informal requests for information” on Lafarge’s past conduct in Syria from the Department of Justice, Bloomberg reported.

“In this case, the knowing payment of several million dollars to an organization whose purpose is exclusively criminal is sufficient to characterize the complicity, regardless of whether the concerned party is acting in pursuit of a commercial activity,” the top judges said in a statement.

Previous coverage:

2016-07-15 Lafarge paid taxes to ISIS to protect its business in Syria

Historic victory before French Supreme Court on the indictment of multinational Lafarge for complicity in crimes against humanity

https://www.asso-sherpa.org/historic-victory-before-french-supreme-court-on-the-indictment-of-multinational-lafarge-for-complicity-in-crimes-against-humanity

7 September 2021

Paris/Berlin – Today, France’s highest court, the Cour de cassation, decided that Lafarge’s indictment for complicity in crimes against humanity was wrongly canceled by the Paris Appeals Court. This charge had been issued in connection to payments made by Lafarge to the Islamic State and other armed groups in Syria between 2012 and 2014. Today, the Supreme Court found that knowingly transferring millions of dollars to an organization whose sole purpose is criminal is enough to characterize complicity. The Supreme Court therefore ordered for the case to be sent back to the Appeals Court on this charge.  

Today’s decision is deemed crucial for corporate accountability. It follows a criminal complaint filed in 2016 by eleven former employees of Lafarge together with NGOs Sherpa and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights.

“Lafarge was not just doing business, but recklessly put the lives of me and my colleagues at risk – just for the sake of financial profits”, says Mohammad, a former employee of Lafarge in Syria and plaintiff in the case.

The judicial inquiry revealed that between 2012 and 2014, the company, through its Syrian subsidiary Lafarge Cement Syria, allegedly paid up to 13 million euro to various armed groups, including the Islamic State, in order to keep its cement factory in northeastern Syria running. This, in spite of the ongoing war raging at its doorstep and the kidnappings and security threats faced by its employees.

“Today’s decision sends an important message to all companies that profit from or fuel armed conflicts and claim that their business activities are neutral”, explains Cannelle Lavite, legal advisor at ECCHR. “By transferring hundreds of thousands of euros to the IS, a group that knowingly committed crimes against humanity, Lafarge was well aware that this money could be used towards criminal purposes of the worst nature – and thereby made itself possibly complicit.”

“With this historic decision, it becomes difficult for companies to escape accountability and shift the blame for their wrongdoings or decisions that cause human rights violations to their foreign subsidiaries”, says Franceline Lepany, President at Sherpa.

The court maintains the indictments against Lafarge group for financing of terrorism. The decision on endangering the lives of others has been ordered back to the Appeals Court for review. Eight former executives remain indicted under various charges in the on-going judicial inquiry.

Regrettably, although the Supreme Court maintained ECCHR’s admissibility in relation to crimes against humanity, it rejected Sherpa’s. It also confirmed the inadmissibility of Sherpa and ECCHR as civil parties for the offences of financing of terrorism and endangering the lives of others.  

“Without Sherpa and the ECCHR, we would never have had access to justice. This aspect of the decision is shocking”, explains Mohammad, one of the plaintiffs in the case.  

The decision to reject Sherpa’s admissibility in this case is part of an alarming practice to restrict civil action by associations. “The possibility to act before the criminal justice system is reduced for associations, while their role is essential in the fight against impunity of multinationals. Indeed, the victims and the authorities cannot always act before the courts for material or political reasons. It is therefore imperative to reverse this trend, if necessary through reform”, says Sandra Cossart, Executive Director of Sherpa. Over the last few years, Sherpa and ECCHR have accompanied, at their request, many former Syrian employees of Lafarge in the current criminal proceedings.

Background on the proceedings:

Since 2017, following ECCHR’s and Sherpa’s complaint, eight former managers of Lafarge, including former CEOs of the group, have been charged with financing of terrorism and endangering their employees’ lives.

In June 2018, the company was charged with complicity in crimes against humanity and ordered to pay a 30 million euro deposit ahead of a possible trial.

In November 2019, the Paris Court of Appeals confirmed the charges of financing of terrorism and endangering peoples’ lives but rejected the charge of complicity in crimes against humanity. It also revoked Sherpa’s and ECCHR’s admissibility as civil parties in the case. Both the NGOs as well as Lafarge appealed these decisions, leaving it to the French Supreme Court to decide on these matters.



Lafarge loses bid to dismiss 'crimes against humanity' case in Syria

France's top court on Tuesday overturned a decision by a lower court to dismiss charges brought against cement giant Lafarge for complicity in crimes against humanity in Syria's civil war.

https://www.france24.com/en/europe/20210907-french-firm-lafarge-loses-bid-to-dismiss-crimes-against-humanity-case-in-syria

07/09/2021

The ruling by the Court of Cassation marks a major setback for Lafarge, which is accused of paying nearly 13 million euros ($15.3 million) 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's lawyer refused AFP's request for comment.

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.

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

The Paris Court of Appeal had in 2019 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.

It however 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 over its actions in a foreign country in recent years.

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

It also quashed the lower court's decision to maintain the charge of endangering others, saying that it was not clear that French labour law applied in the case and also referring that question back to investigators.



Holcim’s Syria Woes Mount After Unit’s French Court Defeat

Gaspard Sebag and Tara Patel

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-09-07/holcim-risks-new-syria-charges-after-lafarge-court-defeat

September 7, 2021

Swiss cement maker Holcim Ltd. risks criminal charges in France after its Lafarge SA unit lost a lawsuit about paying a terrorist group to keep a plant operating in war-torn Syria.

Judges at France’s top court ruled against Lafarge on Tuesday, paving the way for charges of complicity in crimes against humanity to be reinstated. The judgment topples a decision by a lower tribunal, which had dismissed the accusations.

The case emerged just months after the 2015 tie-up between Swiss and French cement rivals and has been a thorn in side of the combined company ever since. An internal probe found “significant errors of judgement” after money was paid to armed Syrian groups to safeguard the factory, triggering the departure of its first CEO. Islamic State fighters seized the plant in September 2014.

“This is a legacy issue for us that we are managing responsibly,” Lafarge said in a statement, adding that individuals under investigation are no longer at the firm. “We have taken immediate and firm steps to make sure that similar events do not happen again.”

The shares fell as much as 4.2% to the lowest level since Jan. 29.

The French ruling adds to Holcim’s Syria-related woes, which extend to the U.S. In its first-half earnings report published in July, the company said it has also received “informal requests for information” on Lafarge’s past conduct in Syria from the Department of Justice and discussions have recently started on a potential resolution.

Oddo BHF downgraded the stock on Tuesday, saying the Syrian issue is a “sword of Damocles that has become American” and could damage the company’s ESG rating.

On Tuesday, the top court confirmed a terrorism financing charge from 2018 but raised doubts as to whether the cement maker can be accused of putting the lives of Syrian staff in danger. The Cour de Cassation judges asked for the matter to be re-examined at a lower level, taking international law into account.

The top court also instructed a different panel of judges at the lower jurisdiction, the Paris court of appeals, to review the aiding and abetting charge. The top judges consider that a company can aid and abet crimes against humanity by being aware of their preparation or carrying out and providing some assistance to facilitate them.

“In this case, the knowing payment of several million dollars to an organization whose purpose is exclusively criminal is sufficient to characterize the complicity, regardless of whether the concerned party is acting in pursuit of a commercial activity,” the top judges said in a statement.

 

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