Hazards issue 118, April-June 2012
After a 30-year fight for justice, two former executives of a Swiss building products conglomerate have been convicted in Italy of causing the asbestos-related deaths of more than 3,000 people.
The defendants, the former owner of the Eternit conglomerate Stephan Schmidheiny and Belgian baron Louis de Cartier de Marchienne, a major shareholder in the firm, were each sentenced in Turin to 16 years in prison on a charge of involuntary manslaughter. Schmidheiny, 64, a Swiss billionaire, and de Cartier, 90, were accused of exposing workers at four Italian asbestos cement factories, as well as people who lived near the plants, to asbestos. Neither appeared in court and both denied the charges.
Handing down the verdict, Chief Judge Giuseppe Casalbore read out the names of 2,768 of the Italian victims of Eternit. Some relatives of victims burst into tears at the 13 February 2012 conclusion of the world's largest-ever trial into asbestos-related deaths and illnesses. Italian actress Laura Curino, who had performed a play about the asbestos scandal to packed audiences in Turin the previous week, praised the care and respect with which Judge Casalbore announced the judgment. “Each name,” she said “was given equal weight and dignity.”
The court also awarded damages to hundreds of victims’ families, with the average payout around 30,000 euros. “It's a sentence that you can call truly historic for its social aspects and for its technical and legal ones,” said health minister Renato Balduzzi.
Some 1,500 relatives and supporters of the victims watched the final day of the trial on large TV screens set up in Turin. Delegations from France, Belgium, Switzerland, the UK and the US were in an adjacent court, where simultaneous translations in French and English were available. This was the first time translations had been provided by the Turin criminal court, reflecting the global interest in the case.
A statement from the Associazione Famigliari Vittime Amianto (Association of Asbestos Victims' Families) said “we believe this judgment is a turning point in history as justice is awarded to thousands of workers and members of the community who were killed, slaughtered, especially in Casale Monferrato and Cavagnolo, where the Italian Eternit plants were.” Eternit closed its operations in Italy in 1986, six years before asbestos was banned in the country.
JUST FEELING Italian widows were joined by trade unionists and campaigners from the US and across Europe to mark the conclusion of the case, which saw two top executives of the former asbestos giant Eternit convicted of causing the deaths of thousands of workers and residents.
HIGH PRICE Asbestos campaigners from across the world came to the sentencing to support families seeking justice for Eternit’s Italian cancer victims. Family members, wearing sashes, sat in a dignified silence in the courtroom throughout the case.
NO COMPREHENSION A spokesperson for convicted billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny said the verdict was “totally incomprehensible” and said that Schmidheiny’s lawyers would appeal. Eternit made “substantial investments” in worker safety and modernisation of the Italian plants in the 1970s and 1980s, according to the statement. A second case involving other alleged Eternit victims is now due to commence.
A Swiss billionaire and a Belgian baron have been sentenced to 16 years in prison after being found guilty of corporate manslaughter. After a stunningly successful grassroots campaign for justice, the former Eternit executives were convicted by an Italian court of causing the asbestos-related of more than 3,000 people.
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