France's top court on Tuesday overturned a decision by a lower court to dismiss charges brought against cement giant Lafarge for complicity in crimes against humanity in Syria's civil war.
The ruling by the Court of Cassation marks a major setback for Lafarge, which is accused of paying nearly 13 millions 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's lawyer refused AFP's request for comment.
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.
But it denies any responsibility for the money winding up in the hands of terrorist groups and has fought to have the case dropped.
The Paris Court of Appeal had in 2019 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.
It however 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.
Quashing the lower court's finding on complicity, France's highest court of appeal ruled 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," it added.
The judges added that "numerous acts of complicity" would go unpunished if courts adopted a more lenient interpretation.
The ruling 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.
The court instead 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.
- Shell precedent -
The Court did however uphold 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 (95 miles) northeast of the regional capital Aleppo.
The company is not the first multinational to be accused of complicity in crimes against humanity over its activity in a country where people suffered serious rights abuses.
But such cases have rarely been brought to trial.
Twelve Nigerians took Anglo-Dutch energy giant Shell to court in the US, accusing it of abetting extra-judicial killings, torture, rape and crimes against humanity in the Niger Delta in the 1990s.
The US Supreme Court in 2013 dismissed the case, saying US courts did not have jurisdiction in the matter.