(Adds lawyer, minister quotes, damages)
By Paola Italiano
TURIN, Italy Feb 13 A billionaire Swiss
industrialist and a Belgian executive were sentenced to 16 years
in jail on Monday by an Italian court and ordered to pay
millions of euros in damages for negligence that led to more
than 2,000 asbestos-related deaths .
The verdict in Turin could set a precedent for proceedings
worldwide about safety in the workplace. Relatives of the
victims and hundreds of others filled the courthouse, some
crying, others applauding when the sentence was read out.
Stephan Schmidheiny, 64, former owner of the Swiss fibre
cement firm Eternit, and Belgian shareholder and former
executive Jean Louis Marie Ghislain de Cartier de Marchienne,
90, were found guilty of intentionally omitting to install
measures to prevent health damage from asbestos at Eternit's
Italian plants, which closed in 1986.
The defendants, who were tried in absentia, have denied
wrongdoing and plan to appeal, their lawyers said.
"I thought I would be able to cry today but ... I didn't.
It's just too hard to let yourself go," Romana Blasotti, who
lost five family members, was quoted as saying by the Ansa
More than 6,000 people - including former employees and
residents of the four towns where the plants were located - were
seeking damages in the case. They were each awarded an average
30,000 euros ($40,000).
The defendants were accused for their role as executives at
the fibre cement maker's Italian affiliate, Eternit SpA.
Prosecutors said the lack of safety measures led to the
deaths of 2,000 people, mostly from cancer triggered by contact
with asbestos, and thousands of other cases of chronic pulmonary
disease, tumours and other illnesses over the past four decades.
They affected workers and residents of Casale Monferrato and
Cavagnolo, two hill towns near Turin; the village of Rubiera in
northern Italy; and the seaside town of Bagnoli, outside Naples.
"DREAM COME TRUE"
Compensation awarded by the court included 25 million euros
to Casale Monferrato, 20 million euros to the Piedmont region,
and 100 million euros to the victims' group Afeva.
"It's a dream come true," said prosecutor Raffaele
Guariniello, who had sought a 20-year term for both defendants.
He called the case "the biggest trial in the world and in
history as far as safety at work is concerned".
It took three courtrooms on Monday to accommodate the large
crowd, Italian news reports said. The presiding judge needed
three hours to read out the verdict, capping a trial that had
opened in 2009.
Health Minister Renato Balduzzi called the sentence
"historic", noting that asbestos was not only a local and
national issue, but also an international one.
Asbestos fibres became popular from the late 19th century
onwards as a way to reinforce cement, often for roofing and
cladding, as well as adding sound absorption and heat
Asbestos is now banned from building materials in much of
the West, but is still being used as insulation in developing
countries. The inhalation of asbestos fibres can cause lung
inflammation and cancer, and symptoms do not tend to appear for
Eternit closed its Italian operations in 1986, six years
before asbestos was banned in Italy.
In a statement, Schmidheiny, once Switzerland's most
influential industrialist, but now largely retired and focused
on international philanthropy, called the ruling
"incomprehensible" and said he would appeal.
"We were not expecting this sentence," said Cesare Zaccone,
de Cartier de Marchienne's lawyer. His client said in a
statement he would also appeal, because he had "never been in
charge of safety measures at Eternit SpA".
A statement on his behalf in 2009 said that risks related
to asbestos were not well known at the time the plants were in
Schmidheiny took over 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.
(1 euro = $1.324)
(Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)