Relatives of victims await Italy asbestos trial verdict

13th February 2012, Comments 0 comments

Hundreds of relatives of victims of asbestos-related diseases waited anxiously for a verdict Monday in an Italian trial that is being closely watched as a potential precedent around the world.

Tensions ran high outside the courthouse in the city of Turin in Italy's industrial heartland, as the trial into over 3,000 alleged asbestos-related deaths -- the biggest of its kind -- wound up after two years of hearings.

Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny, the former owner of a company making Eternit fibre cement, and Belgian baron Jean-Louis Marie Ghislain de Cartier de Marchienne, a major shareholder, face sentences of up to 20 years in prison.

The allegations against the two -- who are being tried in their absence -- concern asbestos production at four Eternit facilities in Italy and 6,000 people including former employees and local residents are seeking damages.

Schmidheiny and De Cartier are accused of causing an environmental disaster and failing to comply with safety regulations.

"This trial will go down in history... but it will not bring my dad back," said Piero Ferraris, whose father Evasio died in 1988 of lung cancer after working in a local Eternit factory from 1946 to 1979.

"I hope they get sent down for at least 30 years. People were working in the factories without any protection," said Ferraris, who was in court with his mother Elda. "Let justice be done," she said.

The hearing began at 9:45 am (0845 GMT) after a delay caused by long queues of relatives, victims and supporters hoping to watch the verdict. Around 1,500 had travelled to the court and three large screens streamed the hearing live.

Legal sources said a verdict was not likely before mid-afternoon.

Relatives of people killed by asbestos-related diseases held up banners outside the court with sketches of the Swiss billionaire behind bars. Others held aloft signs reading "the State has abandoned us!" or "For Shame!"

"However it goes today, this is the end of a historic trial," said prosecutor Raffaele Guariniello as he entered the court. "It has been the biggest trial in the world on safety in the workplace."

Eternit went bankrupt six years before asbestos was banned in Italy in 1992.

Schmidheiny is now 64 years old and De Cartier 90. Their alleged crimes carry a maximum 12-year sentence, but prosecutors are seeking a harsher punishment because they say the fall-out continues to affect victims.

"I have never seen such a tragedy. It affects workers and inhabitants... it continues to cause deaths and will continue to do so for who knows how long," Guariniello had told the court in his closing speech of the trial in November.

Defence lawyers denied the accused had direct responsibility for the Italian company, and the pair have been absent from court throughout.

Negotiations between Schmidheiny and local authorities in Casale Monferrato for an out-of-court settlement fell through this month. The billionaire had offered the town 18 million euros ($23 million) to drop the case.

The trial, which began in 2009 after a five-year investigation, is the biggest of its kind against a multinational for asbestos-related deaths.

Asbestos, which was banned in Europe in 2005, but is still widely used in the developing world, had been used mainly as building insulation for its sound absorption and resistance to fire, heat and electrical damage.

The inhalation of asbestos fibres can cause lung inflammation and cancer, and symptoms can take up to 20 years to manifest after exposure.

In France, the first complaints by workers exposed to asbestos date back to 1996 but there have been no major trials even though health authorities blame asbestos for between 10 and 20 percent of lung cancers.

The French victim support group Andeva said the trial represents "an amazing hope for victims across the world."

"We are waiting for the verdict with great impatience," French lawyer Jean-Paul Teissonniere, told AFP inside the court. "We will ask French judicial authorities, why a trial like this is possible in Italy and not in France."

In Switzerland, three suits filed against Eternit's former owners -- Thomas and Stephan Schmidheiny -- expired under a statute of limitations in 2008.

In Belgium, a civil case in November awarded compensation of 250,000 euros ($330,000) to a family of asbestos victims.

The court in Brussels found Eternit responsible for the death in 2000 of the wife of a factory engineer who died 13 years before because of asbestos and of two of their five sons who died for the same reason.

© 2012 AFP

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