French firm Lafarge charged with ‘complicity in crimes against humanity’

The company is accused of having payed millions to jihadist groups, including the Islamic State, to keep its factory open during the war.
Thursday 28/06/2018
Former Lafarge CEO Bruno Lafont gesturing during a press conference in Paris, on April 7, 2014. (AFP)
Former Lafarge CEO Bruno Lafont gesturing during a press conference in Paris, on April 7, 2014. (AFP)

TUNIS - French construction firm Lafarge was charged Thursday with complicity in crimes against humanity and financing a terrorist organisation for paying around $13 million to jihadist groups, including the Islamic State, to ensure its factory would stay open during the conflict.

According to a legal source cited by AP, the company, which used middlemen  to pay the jihadist groups, has also been charged with endangering the lives of former employees working in Jalabiya, northern Syria.

French rights group Sherpa, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said it was the first time that a company anywhere in the world had been charged with complicity in crimes against humanity.

Lafarge, which merged with Swiss group Holcim in 2015, was ordered to hand over 30 million euros ($35 million) to authorities as a security deposit ahead of the trial.

Eight Lafarge executives, including former chief executive officers Bruno Laffont and Eric Olsen have already been charged with financing a terrorist group and/or endangering the lives of others over Lafarge’s activities in Syria between 2011 and 2015.

Lafarge admitted in March 2017 that it had resorted to “unacceptable practices” to maintain operations at its now-closed cement plant in Jalabiya 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.”

Former Deputy Managing Director for Operations Christian Herrault, who also faces charges, was previously reported as telling investigators in 2017 that “either you agreed to the racket or you left” Syria. He was also reported to have confirmed he had “discussions” on the subject with Lafont.

The charges came 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 pres¬sured 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 2017.

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. 

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.

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 re¬motely 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.”

(The Arab Weekly staff and news agencies)