French cement company may be charged with crimes against humanity
A French cement company is accused of having financed terrorism in Syria. An international precedent now provides a clear path for a trial to be conducted. In France, the Court of Cassation, the country’s highest court, has decided that the company might be held liable for financing of terrorism and assisting in the commission of crimes against humanity. It would be the first company worldwide to face prosecution for this grave allegation should the cement company be found guilty. Thus, the procedure constitutes an international precedent.
The alleged offences are said to have occurred during the civil war in Syria. The cement company operated a cement plant in the north of the country. The accusation is that the local management decided to pay protection money to Islamic State (IS) fighters as the fighting was getting closer to secure the operation of the plant. IS is internationally classified as a terrorist organization.
The company is alleged to have paid nearly USD 6 million in direct payments to terrorist organisations during the years 2013 and 2014. Additionally, the organisation is charged with supplying cement to the terrorists for financial gain. This allegation was admitted to U.S. authorities by the company in October 2022. This made it the first company to be held accountable in the United States for financing foreign terrorists. A settlement in the amount of USD 778 million was reached between the company and the US Department of Justice (DOJ).
Nevertheless, the settlement failed to bring an end to the legal proceedings in the United States, as several persons filed civil actions against the company in December 2023. The plaintiffs are members of the Yazidi faith community. Yazidis have endured tremendous suffering at the hands of IS’s terror. Another action against the company was initiated in summer 2023 by the relatives of American soldiers and employees of aid organisations. They had relatives who, among others, had been killed or injured by IS. In this instance as well, the plaintiffs are seeking restitution.
In addition to the criminal investigation in the USA, investigations were also conducted at the company’s headquarters in France since 2017. There, the company faced prosecution for both financing terrorism and jeopardising the lives of Syrian employees who were compelled to work at the facility during the war. Subsequently, a legal conflict has been ongoing regarding the admissibility of an indictment based on these reasons. The route proceeded through an appellate court to the Court of Cassation. On 16 January 2024, the Court of Cassation decided that the company can face charges related to the financing of terrorism and assisting in the commission of crimes against humanity. Nevertheless, the company has attained a limited victory: The accusation of putting Syrian employees at risk must be dismissed. This is due to the exemption of applicable French labour law. The Court of Cassation clarified in its published judgement that the application of French labour law is limited to the French employees in Syria. The expatriate staff were repatriated in 2012 while the plant ceased operations only in late 2014.
The French Court of Cassation abstains from rendering preliminary judgements on the substance of the case, instead focusing on scrutinising formal obligations and judicial protocols. Consequently, it is yet to be determined when the company will face charges and when the actual legal proceedings against the company will commence in France. Former top managers of the company are also being investigated directly. The presumption of innocence applies to both the company and the former managers.
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