Lafarge SA, Eric Olsen and others
Proceedings against the cement company Lafarge SA (which, following its merger with Holcim became LafargeHolcim and was renamed Holcim in 2021) for complicity in crimes against humanity committed by armed groups in Syria, financing terrorism, deliberate endangerment of people’s lives and violation of an embargo
Type of jurisdiction
Universal jurisdiction and active personality
The French company Lafarge prior to its 2015 merger with Swiss-based Holcim; Eric Olsen, former deputy director; seven top executives of the French-Swiss Holcim group and of its subsidiary Lafarge Cement Syria; one Syrian-Canadian intermediary between Lafarge and ISIS. The primary suspects are French and Norwegian nationals.
Country of residence of suspects
France and Switzerland
Complicity in crimes against humanity; financing of a terrorist enterprise; deliberate endangerment of people’s lives and violation of the European Union embargo on oil purchases
Indicted while under investigation (mis en examen)
Lafarge owned and ran a cement factory in Jalabiya, Syria. From 2012 on, several armed groups operated in the factory’s vicinity. The company allegedly entered into negotiations with ISIS to purchase oil and pozzolan (a material used to make concrete) from them, as well as to obtain official ISIS passes for crossing checkpoints in order to maintain its production in the area. Testimonies also point to Lafarge risking the lives of its employees, who suffered kidnappings and extortion, and violating a number of basic labor rights. The company worked out “arrangements” with armed groups, including ISIS and the Al Nusra Front, around the factory from 2012-2015 amounting to at least EUR 13’000’000, according to the judicial inquiry.
In September 2016, the French minister of finance filed a complaint before the Paris prosecutor against LafargeHolcim for its alleged illegal purchase of oil in Syria, despite the EU embargo issued in 2012. The Paris prosecutor opened an investigation in October 2016.
On 15 November 2016, 11 former Lafarge Syrian employees and the human rights groups Sherpa and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) filed a criminal complaint as civil parties in Paris against Lafarge, Lafarge Cement Syria and their current and former top executives for financing of terrorism, complicity in crimes against humanity committed in Syria, endangerment of people’s lives and for a series of labor rights violations.
On 9 June 2017, three investigative judges of the Paris Tribunal opened an investigation into the crimes alleged by the plaintiffs. In September 2017, three of the victims were heard by one of the investigative judges.
Between December 2017 and May 2018, eight former executives, including former CEOs of the Holcim group, were charged while under investigation (mis en examen) with financing terrorism and endangerment of people’s lives amongst other charges, and were requested to provide the courts with a deposit of several million euros. In September 2019, a Syrian-Canadian alleged former intermediary between the company and ISIS suppliers was also charged.
On 28 June 2018, three investigative judges of the Paris Tribunal charged while under investigation (mis en examen) the legal entity Lafarge SA (now Holcim) with complicity in crimes against humanity, financing a terrorist enterprise, endangerment of people’s lives and violation of an embargo. The investigative judges ordered the company to hand over EUR 30’000’000 to the judicial authorities as a security deposit ahead of a possible trial.
On 24 October 2019, the Investigation Chamber of the Paris Court of Appeals rejected the admissibility of Sherpa and the ECCHR as civil parties.
On 7 November 2019, the Paris Court of Appeals confirmed the indictments of the Lafarge executives and of the Lafarge company itself for financing a terrorist enterprise, endangerment of people’s lives and violation of an EU embargo. However, it dismissed the charges of complicity in crimes against humanity for the company.
In November 2019, Sherpa and the ECCHR appealed the rejection of their civil party applications and the dismissal of the complicity in crimes against humanity charges to the French Supreme Court. Defense lawyers also appealed the 7 November confirmation of indictments.
On 7 September 2021, the French Supreme Court ruled that Lafarge’s indictment for complicity in crimes against humanity was wrongly dismissed by the Paris Court of Appeals, finding that knowingly transferring millions of dollars to an organization whose sole purpose is criminal is sufficient to characterize complicity in crimes against humanity. The court also ruled that Lafarge’s indictment for endangerment of peoples’ lives was wrongly confirmed by the Paris Court of Appeals, finding that it had not sufficiently justified the application of French law to the case of Syrian workers. The Supreme Court therefore referred the case back to the Paris Court of Appeals for a new decision on both charges. In addition, it confirmed the inadmissibility of Sherpa as a civil party on all charges and ECCHR’s inadmissibility for almost all charges, with the exception of the complicity in crimes against humanity charge.
The Supreme Court sent the legal challenges against the various indictments back to a newly composed Court of Appeal.
Civil proceedings in the United States of America
On 18 October 2022, in a separate proceeding in the United States, Lafarge SA and Lafarge Cement Syria pleaded guilty before a federal court to conspiring to provide material support to foreign terrorist organizations and agreed to pay USD 778’000’000 in fines and forfeiture. It is the first time in the US that a company was prosecuted on this charge. The media reported that in court, the Lafarge chair said the former company executives knowingly and willfully agreed to participate in a conspiracy to make and authorize payments intended for the benefit of various armed groups in Syria.
The plea agreement is distinct from the French criminal proceedings and does not address the central question of corporate complicity in international crimes and reparations for those affected.
Developments in 2022
On 18 May 2022, the Paris Court of Appeals upheld all charges against the parent company Lafarge. In confirming the charge of complicity in crimes against humanity, the Court of Appeals reiterated the legal findings of the Supreme Court that there was serious or corroborating evidence that Lafarge knowingly chose to maintain its activities in the region by financing these groups. With regard to the charge of deliberately endangering the lives of its subsidiary’s employees in Syria, the Court of Appeals further found that French law was applicable as there was a closer connection between the workers and the French parent company. The Court relied on the permanent interference of Lafarge in the management of its subsidiary, as had been highlighted by the Supreme Court. The Court thus found that there was serious or corroborating evidence that Lafarge may have been complicit in crimes against humanity and may have endangered the lives of its Syrian workers and upheld the charges.