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France's Lafarge charged over alleged complicity with Syria crimes against humanity

Lafarge cement works in Jalabiya Delil souleiman / AFP

Franco-Swiss cement giant has been charged with complicity in crimes against humanity and financing terrorism over alleged payments to insurgents, including the Islamic State (IS) armed group, in Syria. The company also faces investigation in Belgium and the US.

The allegations are some of the most serious ever made against a French company.

Lafarge's Syrian subsidiary is alleged to have paid nearly 13 million euros in "taxes" to groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including IS, so as to keep its cement works in in Jalabiya, northern Syria, open.

It is also accused of buying raw materials, including petrol, from suppliers close to IS and endangering its employees' lives.

Lafarge, which has since merged with Swiss firm Holcim, immediately rejected the charges, saying they were not a fair reflection of its responsibilities.

The company, which was ordered to stand bail of 30 million euros, admitted failures in supervision of its Syrian subsidiary but blamed the action on an "unprecedented violation of regulations and internal rules of conformity by people who have since left the group".

Eight former members of senior management, including ex-CEO Bruno Lafont, have been charged with financing terrorism and/or endangering employees' lives.

A hearing for the company's representatives set for 5 June was postponed because of the resignation of CEO Saad Sebbar, who had been appointed in 2017.

Magali Anderson was appointed to replace him last Friday.

Further charges possible

Further charges are possible, since the inquiry has brought to light possible sales of cement to IS.

The case was launched following a legal complaint by the NGOs Sherpa and the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights.

They welcomed the charges in a statement that claimed that "the sale of raw materials accounts for 82 percent of IS's resources", adding that such finance "greatly contributed to the strengthening of its human, material and operational capacities and consequently the perpetration of crimes against humanity".

"We hope the Lafarge case will be a game changer," ECCHR legal adviser Claire Tixeire told RFI. "This can set a precedent, so that multinational companies stop acting with impunity when it comes to the activities of their subsidiaries abroad, and slow down how much they can fuel human rights violations, especially in
armed conflict zones, as was the case for Lafarge in Syria."

Lafarge should  open a compensation fund for all former employees of the Syrian plant, she said. "From 2012 to 2014, a couple of hundred people who were forced to work in conditions that were absolutely incompatible with the respect of human

Belgian, US investigations

Belgian investigators hooked up with the French investigation last year.

They raided the headquarters of Groupe Bruxelles Lambert, which owned 20 percent of Lafarge at the time of the alleged crimes, and questioned four of its top bosses.

The US Department of Justice and the FBI have asked for access to the Belgian investigators' findings and, sources have told Le Monde newspaper, those of the French investigators, too, leading to the possibility of a legal case in America.