French cement giant, Lafarge, has had a decision by a lower court to dismiss charges brought against the company for complicity in crimes against humanity in Syria’s civil war, overturned by France’s top court, Court of Cassation, on Tuesday.

The ruling by the Court of Cassation marks a major setback for Lafarge, which is accused of paying nearly 13 million euros ($15.3 million) to jihadist groups including the Islamic State (IS) to keep its cement factory in northern Syria running through the early years of the country’s war.

Lafarge, which merged in 2015 with Swiss group Holcim, has acknowledged that its Syrian subsidiary paid middlemen to negotiate with armed groups to allow the movement of staff and goods inside the war zone, however, the company denies any responsibility for the money winding up in the hands of terrorist groups and has fought to have the case dropped.

In 2019, the Paris Court of Appeal dismissed the crimes against humanity charge, saying it accepted that the payments were not aimed at abetting IS’s gruesome agenda of executions and torture, but it ruled that the company be prosecuted on three other charges – financing terrorism, violating an EU embargo and endangering the lives of others.

Eleven former employees of Lafarge Cement Syria (LCS) challenged the decision at the Court of Cassation, with the backing of NGOs.

France’s highest court of appeal quashed the lower court’s finding on complicity, ruling on Tuesday that “One can be complicit in crimes against humanity even if one doesn’t have the intention of being associated with the crimes committed.”

“Knowingly paying several million dollars to an organisation whose sole purpose was exclusively criminal suffices to constitute complicity, regardless of whether the party concerned was acting to pursue a commercial activity,” the ruling continued.

The judges added that “numerous acts of complicity” would go unpunished if courts adopted a more lenient interpretation.

This does not mean, however, that Lafarge will automatically face trial on the most serious accusations laid against a French company over its actions in a foreign country in recent years, instead, the court referred the matter back to investigating magistrates to reconsider the complicity charge.

It also quashed the lower court’s decision to maintain the charge of endangering others, saying that it was not clear that French labour law applied in the case and also referring that question back to investigators, however, the court upheld the charge of financing terrorism, which Lafarge had fought to have dismissed.

Apart from the company, eight Lafarge executives, including former CEO Bruno Laffont, are also charged with financing a terrorist group and/or endangering the lives of others.

Lafarge eventually left Syria in September 2014 after IS seized its plant in Jalabiya, around 150 kilometres northeast of the regional capital Aleppo.