A French appeal court has thrown out a charge alleging that the industrial giant Lafarge was guilty of "complicity in crimes against humanity" over its involvement in Syria.
However, the cement manufacturer remains accused of financing terrorist groups including ISIS, and violating international sanctions.
As well as the company itself, three former executives also face charges: the ex-CEO Bruno Lafont, former security director Jean-Claude Veillard, and an ex-director of Lafarge's Syrian subsidiary, Frédéric Jolibois.
Lawyers for the multinational welcomed the appeal court's ruling on the complicity charge. "The court recognises that Lafarge has never participated either closely or from afar in a crime against humanity," said their statement.
Lafarge – which merged in 2015 with the Swiss company Holcim – remains suspected of paying nearly 13 million euros via its Syrian subsidiary to jihadist groups, to keep its operation going.
Present in Syria since 2007, the company stayed on while other multinationals pulled out amid the country’s descent into civil war in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring” protests in 2011.
Lafarge's Syrian operation
The case highlights the difficulties of attempting to do business in war-torn regions.
Lafarge argues it tried to protect jobs, livelihoods and keep the local economy going. But as the conflict took hold, the situation around its plant at Jalabiya – between Raqqa and Aleppo in northern Syria – became increasingly lawless.
It is accused of paying off terrorist groups, often via intermediaries. Far from protecting its staff, the company is said to have put pressure on employees to keep working – putting lives at risk.
Lafarge is also suspected of paying to get supplies of raw materials from jihadist groups.
Some workers gave evidence describing their terror as they fled across the desert after ISIS – which later took control of the plant – invaded the neighbouring village in 2014. It’s said that buses, promised to evacuate staff in the event of danger, failed to materialise.
Investigations result in charges
Following revelations published by Le Monde newspaper and France 24, the French authorities launched their own inquiry. It resulted in several former Lafarge bosses being placed under formal investigation.
An internal company investigation uncovered payments to “armed groups”. But Lafarge contests responsibility over where the money paid ended up, and blames local managers. Lawyers have also disputed the trustworthiness of other investigations. Lafarge insists its “absolute priority” has always been to ensure the safety and security of its personnel.
Last month legal advice for the prosecution appeared to support the multinational's defence against "complicity in crimes against humanity” – the charge rejected on Thursday.
The French anti-corruption group Sherpa – which argued that evidence from ex-Syrian employees justified the accusation – was dismissed as a plaintiff in the case along with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR). They responded by denouncing what they said was a “political decision”.
Following Thursday's decision, a lawyer for Sherpa said the remaining charge against Lafarge of financing terrorism was still "a first in the judicial world".