French firm Lafarge under investigation for complicity in crimes against humanity in Syria
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French cement giant Lafarge was placed under formal investigation Thursday for complicity in crimes against humanity and financing a terrorist enterprise in Syria.
Lafarge is suspected of paying nearly €13 million in murky deals to the Islamic State (IS) group after the jihadist group seized control of the Jalabiya region in northern Syria where the company was running a cement plant.
A French judicial official told the AP that the company was being investigated as a legal entity that violated an embargo and endangered the lives of others.
Lafarge has acknowledged funneling money to Syrian armed groups in 2013 and 2014 - allegedly including the IS group - to guarantee safe passage for employees and supply its plant in the war-torn country.
Three Lafarge officials were charged last year for turning a blind eye to the company’s payments to the jihadist group.
Bruno Lafont, Lafarge chief executive from 2007 to 2015, and the group's former Syria chief, Christian Herrault, have been charged with "financing a terrorist organization” and "endangering the lives of others".
Eric Olsen, who took over from Lafont as CEO after the company merged with Switzerland's Holcim, has also been charged with the same crimes.
The wrongdoing precedes Lafarge's merger with Swiss company Holcim in 2015 to create LafargeHolcim, the world's largest cement maker.
Lafarge to appeal charges
In a statement Thursday, LafargeHolcim said Lafarge "will appeal against those charges which do not fairly represent the responsibilities" of the company.
The chairman of the board of LafargeHolcim, Beat Hess, said "We truly regret what has happened in the Syria subsidiary and after learning about it took immediate and firm actions. None of the individuals put under investigation is today with the company."
LafargeHolcim commissioned an independent investigation in 2016 that "revealed that the local company provided funds to third parties to work out arrangements with a number of armed groups, which included sanctioned parties", the statement said.
The company confirmed in front of the judges Thursday "that unacceptable individual errors were made in Syria until the site was evacuated in September 2014, which it firmly regrets".
It pledged to fully cooperate with the legal authorities.
Victims of Paris attacks join legal procedure
French media reports that investigating judges don't rule out that the money provided by Lafarge might have helped finance the November 2015 attacks in Paris.
In January, the magistrates allowed the association "Life for Paris", which represents victims and families of November 2015 attacks, to join the procedure as a civil party.
The probe was opened in October 2016 after the French ministry of economy and finance filed a complaint against Lafarge.
French NGO Sherpa subsequently also filed a complaint against the company. It claimed Lafarge and its local subsidiary made "arrangements" with the IS group to obtain passes and to buy oil and other raw materials needed to produce cement in IS-controlled areas of Syria.
(FRANCE 24 with AP)
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