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Major asbestos trial opens

Thousands arrive in Turin for trial of former Eternit heads

10 December, 18:30
Major asbestos trial opens (ANSA) - Turin, December 10 - One of the world's largest trials into asbestos-related crimes opened in Turin on Thursday, drawing thousands to the northern Italian city. Two former heads of Swiss cement giant Eternit have been charged with creating an environmental hazard and wilfully disregarding safety regulations at four asbestos-cement plants in Italy during the 1980s and early 1990s. Prosecutors say around 2,000 workers and local residents died as a consequence. Nearly 3,000 people have applied to join the criminal proceedings as plaintiffs in a linked civil suit, making this one of the largest ever asbestos trials in the world. The defendants, Eternit's Swiss owner, Stephan Schmidheiny, 62, and former managing director, the Belgian baron Louis de Cartier de Marchienne, 88, both deny any wrongdoing and did not attend court.

Speaking to reporters ahead of the opening, Prosecutor Raffaele Guariniello, said the trial would ''ensure justice, both for the victims and the defendants''. Guariniello claims asbestos dust in the air caused tumours among Eternit staff, their families and people living near the factories, and has left around 800 more seriously ill.

The prosecutor, who has been investigating the deaths since 2002, says Eternit's products were also used to pave streets and courtyards, and used as roof insulation in the nearby towns without warnings about the dangers, resulting in decades-long exposure for the local population.

Over a thousand workers and relatives were outside the courthouse on Thursday morning, shuttled in by coaches from across Italy, as well as from France.

Associations representing French asbestos victims say they hope the Italian trial will set an example to France, where they have struggled to get civil suits off the ground. Hundreds more crowded into a nearby auditorium, on temporary loan from the provincial government, to follow the proceedings via a live video link. Three courtrooms have been turned over to the opening of the trial.

TV cameras and defence lawyers squeezed into the central courtroom, where the criminal proceedings got under way. Another hall housed the lawyers and representatives of the 700-odd plaintiffs already joined to the civil suit, while applications by others seeking to join the proceedings were processed in a third courtroom. Eternit ran asbestos-producing plants in Casale Monferrato in Alessandria, Cavagnolo near Turin, Rubiera in Reggio Emilia and Bagnoli near Naples.

Employees and their families say that Eternit did little or nothing to protect its workers and residents living around its factories from the dangers of asbestos.

Many contend that the Swiss company, which pulled out of the asbestos business more than a decade ago, failed to warn its employees of any of the dangers of working with asbestos.

Inail, a state institute which handles compulsory insurance coverage for workers, is among those seeking damages from Eternit after paying out some 246 million euros to former workers.

The Piedmont regional government, the Turin provincial government, environmental organization Legambiente and consumer rights group Codacons are also suing for damages.

Lawyers for Italy's largest labour union CGIL are seeking damages on behalf of 1,610 workers and local residents. Only 315 of these are still alive. Legal experts say the trial is likely to take several years. If convicted, the defendants could face between three and 12 years in prison.

In 1993, four of Eternit's former Casale managers were convicted of wilfully neglecting safety regulations and given sentences of up to three and a half years on suits filed by 137 workers.

In 2006, Eternit set up a fund of 1.25 million Swiss francs to help former employees in Switzerland suffering from asbestos-related illnesses.

Last year, the multinational agreed to pay out almost nine million euros in compensation to workers at another asbestos-cement plant in the Sicilian town of Siracusa.

Schmidheiny has also said he is ready to make tens of millions of euros available in compensation for victims at the multinational's asbestos-producing plants in Casale Monferrato, Cavagnolo, Rubiera and Bagnoli.

Italy outlawed the use of asbestos in 1992.

Prior to the ban, it was one of its largest producers and importers of asbestos in the world, using over 20 million tonnes annually. Today, Italy is one of the western countries worst hit by asbestos-related illnesses, with around 1,350 cases of mesothelioma - a tumour associated with exposure to asbestos dust - reported each year.

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