French construction giant charged with financing a ‘terrorist organisation’

11 former Syrian employees of the group claim they were pressured into working at the plant even when it was not safe to do so.
December 10, 2017
A logo at an entrance of the French headquarters of LafargeHolcim in Paris

Tunis - The former chief execu­tive officer of French construction giant LafargeHolcim has been charged with “financ­ing of a terrorist organisation” and “endangering the lives of others” during the company’s operations in Syria.

Eric Olsen, 53, who became CEO in 2015 when French company Lafarge merged with the Swiss group Holcim, was charged late December 7.

LafargeHolcim admitted in March that it had resorted to “un­acceptable practices” to maintain operations at its now-closed ce­ment plant in Jalabiya, Syria, dur­ing 2013 and 2014. The company, trading as Lafarge during the peri­od concerned, acknowledged that it had indirectly paid protection money to “armed groups, includ­ing sanctioned parties, to maintain operations and ensure the safe passage of employees and supplies to and from the plant.”

Olsen had been questioned with another former CEO, Bruno La­font, and former Deputy Managing Director for Operations Christian Herrault. Olsen reportedly had been released from custody, al­though he remains under judicial supervision. Lafont and Herrault are still being held.

In addition to Olsen, Lafont and Herrault, three other individuals are being investigated by French authorities in the inquiry.

Agence France-Presse (AFP) re­ported that Herrault told investi­gators earlier this year that “either you agreed to the racket or you left” Syria. Herrault was also re­ported to have confirmed he had “discussions” on the subject with Lafont.

An April report commissioned by LafargeHolcim and seen by AFP, confirmed that the group’s Syrian subsiduary Lafarge Ce­ment Syria (LCS) had paid out ap­proximately $5.6 million from July 2012-September 2014. LCS is also suspected of having used coun­terfeit consulting contracts to dis­guise oil transactions they were making with the Islamic State.

The inquiry comes after a crimi­nal complaint was filed by human rights groups Sherpa and the Eu­ropean Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) with 11 former Syrian employees of the group who claim they were pres­sured into working at the plant even when it was not safe to do so.

“Businesses that profit from armed conflict situations risk be­ing guilty of grave crimes,” ECCHR General Secretary Wolfgang Kal­eck said in June.

The NGOs claim employees’ la­bour rights were violated and that no safety measures were imple­mented by Lafarge to protect em­ployees’ well-being. ECCHR and Sherpa said workers at Lafarge’s Syria plant had to cross dangerous checkpoints controlled by armed groups, including at some point by ISIS, to get to the factory. ECCHR alleges that, by financing a terror­ist enterprise, Lafarge may have been complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The company’s management team in Syria threatened employ­ees into continuing to work even when they thought it dangerous to do so, the NGOs alleged. Others were said to have had their salaries suspended for absences. Several employees were said to have been victims of kidnapping, including while on their way to work and at the factory.

LafargeHolcim CEO Eric Olsen stepped down in July because of the controversy even though the company had cleared him of wrongdoing.

Lafarge bought the factory near the Syrian border from Egyptian cement company Orascom and Min Ajl Suriya (MAS), a Syrian company owned by business ty­coon Firas Tlass, who retained about a 1% stake in the business af­ter the sale. The company invested $680 million in getting the factory operational by 2010, representing the biggest foreign investment in the country outside the petroleum sector.

In 2012, hostilities forced French nationals managing the plant to flee Syria. Other companies in the region shuttered their operations, though Lafarge continued produc­tion with the plant managed re­motely from Cairo.

“Everyone saw the Lafarge plant as the big cash cow,” an opposition source in the area told the Finan­cial Times in March. “There was money to be made — a big demand for cement at that time.”