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Europe

Italian court sentences two in asbestos trial

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2012-02-13

An Italian court on Monday convicted two men and sentenced them to 16 years in jail for negligence that led to more than 2,000 asbestos-related deaths blamed on contamination from a construction company.

REUTERS - A Swiss tycoon and a Belgian baron were convicted by an Italian court and sentenced to 16 years in jail on Monday for negligence that led to more than 2,000 asbestos-related deaths in the biggest trial of its kind.

The case in Turin could set a precedent for proceedings worldwide about safety at the workplace.

Former Swiss owner Stephan Schmidheiny, 64, and Belgian shareholder and former executive Jean Louis Marie Ghislain De Cartier De Marchienne, 90, were accused of intentionally omitting to put in place measures to prevent asbestos damage at Swiss firm Eternit's Italian plants.

The defendants, who were tried in absentia, were charged for their role as executives at the fibre cement maker's Italian affiliate Eternit SpA. They deny wrongdoing.

"This is the biggest trial in the world and in history as far as safety at work is concerned," said prosecutor Raffaele Guariniello as he entered the courthouse in Turin.

Guariniello had sought a 20-year jail sentence for both defendants. In a statement, Schmidheiny called the ruling "incomprehensible" and said he would appeal.

Prosecutors said the lack of safety measures led to the deaths or illnesses over the past four decades of Eternit workers and residents of towns where the firm's four plants were based - Casale Monferrato and Cavagnolo in the Piedmont region, Rubiera in Emilia and Bagnoli in Campania.

Overall, more than 6,000 people including former employees and local residents were seeking damages in the case.

Hundreds of victims and their families plus dozens of lawyers and their aides packed the courthouse for the verdict at the end of what the prosecutor called "a historic trial".

Some wept as the sentence, which also detailed financial compensation for the victims and their relatives, was being read out.

The company closed its Italian operations in 1986, six years before asbestos was banned in Italy.

Asbestos became popular among manufacturers and builders in the late 19th century because of its sound absorption and resistance to fire, heat and electrical damage.

It is now banned in much of the West, but it is still being used as building insulation in developing countries. The inhalation of asbestos fibers can cause lung inflammation and cancer, and symptoms do not tend to appear for many years.

Schmidheiny took over leadership of the Swiss Eternit Group from his father in 1976, while De Cartier De Marchienne was a shareholder and manager of Eternit in Italy in the early 1970s.

A statement on behalf of the Belgian defendant in 2009 said that risks related to asbestos were not well known at the time.

Date created : 2012-02-13

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