Lafarge / Eric Olsen and others
Lafarge is a French company created in 1833 and considered as a global leader in construction material and as one of the major actors in cement, aggregates and concrete production. The company is present and active in 61 countries, including Syria. It merged with the Swiss Group Holcim in July 2015. The company declares a sales annual revenue of 8,6 billion euros in the sector of cement production. The Middle East is an important market for the company, with almost 5’500 employees in the region.
Lafarge Cement Syria is a subsidiary, almost 99%-owned by the French Group.
According to the 2016 complaint filed by Sherpa (a French law association whose primary mission is to defend and protect victims of financial crimes), the ECCHR (European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights), and eleven former Lafarge Syrian employees, the crimes allegedly connected with Lafarge’s subsidiary cement factory in Jalabiya, in northern Syria, were committed between 2013 and 2014. At this time, several armed groups operated in the region, including the Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh). Lafarge allegedly entered into negotiations with ISIS to purchase oil and pozzolan from them, as well as to obtain official ISIS permit for crossing checkpoints in order to maintain its production in the area.
In September 2016, the French Minister of Finance filed a complaint before the Paris prosecutor against Lafarge-Holcim 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, eleven former Syrian employees and the human rights organizations Sherpa and the ECCHR filed a criminal complaint as civil parties in Paris against Lafarge, Lafarge Cement Syria, and their current and former CEOs, for financing of terrorism, complicity in crimes against humanity committed in Syria and for a series of grave labor law violations.
On 9 June 2017, three examining magistrates of the Paris Hight Court (Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris) started judicial investigation into the crimes alleged by the NGOs Sherpa and the ECCHR, and eleven former Syrian employees. In September 2017, three of the victims were heard by one of the examining magistrates.
On 13 October 2017, the plaintiffs filed a motion requesting that the examining magistrates summon a former French Minister of Foreign Affairs and two former ambassadors of France to Syria for questioning.
On 14 November 2017, French police searched the headquarters of Lafarge-Holcim in Paris. At the same time, the Belgian federal police searched the premises of Groupe Bruxelles Lambert (GBL), the second largest shareholder of Lafarge-Holcim, in Brussels.
In December 2017, six former CEOs and directors of Lafarge and Lafarge Cement Syria were indicted on charges of financing terrorism and deliberate endangerment of people’s lives, and some on the additional charge of breaching the EU embargo on Syrian oil – namely Eric Olsen and Bruno Lafont, former CEOs of Lafarge; Bruno Pescheux, CEO of the Lafarge Syrian subsidiary between 2008 and 2014; his successor, Frédéric Jolibois; Jean-Claude Veillard, Lafarge’s director of security ; and Christian Herrault, vice director at Lafarge. In March and May 2018, Lafarge’s human resources executive Sonia Artinian and former safety director at LCS, Jacob Waerness, were indicted on similar charges.
On 28 June 2018, three investigative judges of the Paris High Court charged the legal entity Lafarge SA (now LafargeHolcim) with complicity in crimes against humanity, fnancing of a terrorist enterprise, breaching an embargo, and endangering the lives of others. Lafarge allegedly paid millions of euros to ISIS and several armed groups to keep their cement factory running. The investigative judges ordered LafargeHolcim to hand over 30 million euros to the authorities as a security deposit ahead of a possible trial.
In June 2019, the General Prosecutor’s Office of the Court of Appeal declined the prosecution for “complicity in crimes against humanity”.
On 24 October 2019, the Investigation Chamber of the Paris Court of Appeals denied civil party status to the NGOs Sherpa and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR).
On 7 November 2019, the Court confirmed the indictment of nine Lafarge executives and the Lafarge company itself for financing of a terrorist enterprise, breaching an EU embargo and endangering the lives of others. However, the Court revoked the indictment of the company for “complicity in crimes against humanity”. The organizations appealed both the 24 October and the 7 November 2019 decisions to the French Supreme Court.
On 7 March 2021, the Cour de Cassation, the highest court of the French judiciary, overturned the decision of the Paris Court of Appeals to quash the indictment of cement manufacturer Lafarge for “complicity in crimes against humanity” as part of the investigation into its activities in Syria until 2014. The Court of Cassation also overturned the decision of the Court of Appeal to maintain the group’s indictment for “endangering the lives of others”.
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 Appeal Court, 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 Appeal Court, 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 Appeal 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.
France leads the way in the domain as shown by the amendment of its law in 2004 which allows the prosecution of companies for all crimes entailed in its Criminal Code (including core crimes such as crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide) – committed in France as well as abroad.