French cement factory pleads guilty to sending payments to Islamic State

NEW YORK (AP) — French cement company Lafarge pleaded guilty on Tuesday to paying millions of dollars to the Islamic State group to keep a factory operational in Syria — at a time when the militant group was engaged in the torture of Kidnapped Westerners – and agreed to pay around $778 million in penalties.

The Justice Department described it as the first case of its kind, accusing the company of turning a blind eye to the conduct of the Islamic State as the militant group gained new territory and Syria was mired in a war. brutal civilian. The company’s actions, already investigated by French authorities, took place before it merged with Swiss company Holcim to form the world’s largest cement maker.

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Justice Department officials described it as the first case in which a company pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. Lafarge and a long-defunct Syrian subsidiary pleaded guilty, accepting criminal fines of $90.78 million and forfeiture of $687 million.

“There is no justification – none – for a multinational to authorize payments to a designated terrorist group. Such payments are gross violations of our laws, warrant scrutiny by U.S. authorities, and warrant severe penalties,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen, senior national security official at the Justice Department.

Prosecutors say the company funneled nearly $6 million to ISIS and Nusra Front, another militant group, in 2013 and 2014. The payments were not due to any ideological alignment, said the Department of Justice, but rather to a simple economic benefit.

The company had built a $680 million plant in northern Syria in 2011 and, facing competition from cheaper imported cements, saw payments to IS as a way to ensure continued operations. the factory and to protect its employees and the transport of raw materials to the facility. The Justice Department accused the company of using fake contracts and invoices to hide the partnerships.

The payments came at a time when other companies were withdrawing their activities from the region and at a time when beheading videos released for publicity purposes by IS clearly showed the world the barbaric actions of the Islamic State.

The charging documents, for example, cite an August 20, 2014 email exchange in which company officials describe their negotiations with ISIS, with one talking about the need to check with ISIS. a company lawyer on “the consequences of this type of agreement”. A day earlier, IS released a grisly video of the murder of American journalist James Foley.

“Make no mistake: Lafarge and its executives had every reason to know exactly who they were dealing with and they didn’t flinch,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said Tuesday. “Instead, Lafarge forged ahead, working with ISIS to keep operations open, undermine competitors and maximize revenue. And all the while, with their support and funding, Lafarge has enabled the operations of a brutal terrorist organization.

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The allegations involve conduct that has already been investigated by French authorities. Lafarge had previously admitted funneling money to Syrian armed organizations in 2013 and 2014 to ensure safe passage for employees and supply its plant.

In 2014, the company faced preliminary charges including financing a terrorist enterprise and complicity in crimes against humanity.

A French court later quashed the crimes against humanity charges, but said other charges would be considered relating to payments made to armed forces in Syria.

That decision was later overturned by France’s Supreme Court, leading another French court earlier this year to rule that Lafarge should face charges of complicity in crimes against humanity.

No trial date for Lafarge and eight of its executives has yet been set in France.

The wrongdoing predates Lafarge’s merger with Holcim in 2015, although the Justice Department said the deal was completed without a thorough review of Lafarge’s past activities in Syria.

In a statement, Holcim said when it learned of the allegations from the media in 2016, it voluntarily conducted an investigation and publicly disclosed the findings. He fired former Lafarge executives involved in the payments.

“None of this behavior involved Holcim, which has never operated in Syria, or Lafarge operations or employees in the United States, and it stands in stark contrast to anything Holcim stands for,” the company said. “The DOJ noted that former Lafarge SA and LCS executives involved in the conduct concealed it from Holcim before and after Holcim’s acquisition of Lafarge SA, as well as from external auditors.”

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Lafarge said in a separate statement that it had “accepted responsibility for the actions of the individual executives involved.” He added: We deeply regret that this conduct occurred and have been working with the United States Department of Justice to resolve this matter. “

The Islamic State group is abbreviated as IS and has been referred to as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

Tucker reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.