December 1, 2017 / 8:44 PM / a year ago

France places three under formal investigation in Lafarge Syria payments case

PARIS, Dec 1 (Reuters) - French investigators have placed three people under formal investigation as part of a judicial inquiry into the Syrian activities of cement and construction group LafargeHolcim, a Paris judicial source said on Friday.

Under French law, the placing of suspects under formal investigation means that prosecutors believe they have “serious or consistent evidence” that could result in prosecution. Friday’s decision puts the three men one step closer to trial, though the investigation can still be dropped.

Prosecutors launched an investigation in June into Lafarge’s operations and its possible “financing of a terrorist enterprise”. At issue are allegations about payments that were made to banned groups.

Two of the people under investigation are former executives of the company in Syria. The third is a former head of security for Lafarge - which merged with Switzerland’s Holcim in 2015 - and who still works for the company.

The three individuals had been questioned on Wednesday.

Lawyers for two of the men said on Friday that their clients denied any wrongdoing. A lawyer for the third person declined to comment.

LafargeHolcim has also declined to comment on the case.

An independent internal inquiry had found that protection payments made to intermediaries to keep open the Jalabiya plant in northern Syria were not in line with its policies.

LafargeHolcim CEO Eric Olsen said afterwards in April that he would quit after the company admitted it had paid armed groups to keep a factory operating in war-ravaged Syria.

Olsen said at the time that he had not been aware of any wrongdoing and that he hoped his departure would bring back “serenity” to the group. (Reporting by Emmanuel Jarry; Writing by Geert De Clercq; Editing by David Goodman)

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