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Verdict expected in key asbestos trial in Italy

13 february 2012, 17:33
0
The judge's gavel. ©REUTERS/Chip East
The judge's gavel. ©REUTERS/Chip East
An Italian court was set to deliver its verdict on Monday in a trial over 3,000 alleged asbestos-related deaths in a case that is being closely watched as a potential precedent around the world, AFP reports.

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.

The court case is the biggest of its kind and has been taking place in the city of Turin in Italy's industrial heartland.

Campaigners said they expected the verdict to be delivered soon after the hearing starts at 9:00 am (0800 GMT).

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

Schmidheiny is now 64 years old and De Cartier 89. 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," prosecutor Raffaele Guariniello told the court in his closing speech.

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 has said it is sending 160 of its members for the verdict to show solidarity and has said the trial represents "an amazing hope for victims across the world."

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 earlier because of asbestos and of two of their five sons who died for the same reason.

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