(Adds lawyer, minister quotes, damages)
By Paola Italiano
TURIN, Italy, Feb 13 (Reuters) - 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 newswire.
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 resistance.
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 many years.
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 operation.
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)