French firm Lafarge charged with complicity in crimes against humanity and bribing Isil in Syria

The French subsidiary of the cement giant LafargeHolcim was charged on Thursday with financing terrorism for allegedly funneling £11.5 million to Isil and other jihadist groups in Syria.

The company was also placed under formal investigation, the French equivalent to being charged, for complicity in crimes against humanity and endangering the lives of former employees at its cement plant in Jalabiya in northern Syria. 

It is the first time a major French company has been charged with aiding terrorist groups.

Judges are investigating whether Lafarge paid Isil and other terrorist groups to allow its plant to keep operating despite the Syrian civil war, long after other international companies had pulled out following the imposition of EU sanctions.

The funds were allegedly sent through a middleman between 2011 and 2014.  

Bruno Lafont, chief executive officer of Lafarge SA, pictured in 2012Credit:

The cement plant, 55 miles from Isil’s stronghold in the Syrian city of Raqqa, eventually closed in 2014. The French company Lafarge merged with the Swiss firm Holcim a year later to create the world’s largest cement maker, LafargeHolcim.

Investigating judges have not ruled out that money supplied by Lafarge might have helped Isil finance the November 2015 attacks in Paris, according to French media reports.

In January, judges allowed the "Life for Paris" group, which represents victims and families of those killed in the attacks, to become “civil parties”, or plaintiffs, in the case.

Eight former executives, including Bruno Laffont, who was chief executive officer, were charged last year with financing terror and endangering staff.

The company acknowledged to judges on Thursday that “unacceptable individual errors were made in Syria until the site was evacuated in September 2014, which [Lafarge] firmly regrets.” It pledged to cooperate fully with legal authorities.

Beat Hess, the chairman of LafargeHolcim, said in a statement: “We truly regret what has happened in the Syrian subsidiary and after learning about it took immediate and firm actions. None of the individuals placed under investigation is today with the company.”

At the heart of the case is whether the company itself can be held liable for neglecting its responsibilities or whether the blame rests with individuals.

The trial will be seen as a test for how France deals with businesses accused of wrongdoing overseas. Lafarge withdrew expatriate staff from Syria in 2012, but continued operating with local employees.

The company, which said it would appeal against some of the charges, was ordered to hand over £26.5 million as a security deposit ahead of the trial.

Human rights activists and 11 Syrian former employees have also filed a lawsuit alleging that company placed them in danger because it hoped to profit from Syria’s post-war reconstruction.

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Staff members were reportedly kidnapped between 2012 and 2014. In some cases, ransoms were paid and they were released, but at least two employees are believed to have been killed.

Lafarge, a pillar of the French business establishment, was founded in 1833. It helped to build the Suez Canal in Egypt and rebuild the World Trade Center in New York.

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