The great Turin asbestos trial

8 April 2013

The great Turin asbestos trial

The motion recently adopted by the European Parliament on the health risks of working with asbestos and the need to remove all remaining asbestos materials reminds us of the sad fact that each year within the EU between 20,000 and 30,000 victims of asbestos are mourned. The motion also draws attention to the position of asbestos victims and their organisations. Particular mention is made of the stunning verdict of the Turin court, which on 13th February, 2012, condemned the owners of asbestos cement factories to long prison sentences, thus demonstrating that asbestos victims could, via the criminal law, receive recognition and satisfaction.

Bob Ruers is a member of the Senate for the SP.

In the Turin court’s verdict early in 2012 in a major criminal case be regarded as a breakthrough. In 2009, following years of preparation, the criminal trial of the Italian asbestos company Eternit and its executives began. The Office for Public Prosecutions, under the leadership of Officer of Justice Raffaele Guariniello, was one of the parties which brought the criminal action on behalf of 3,000 asbestos victims and their surviving relatives, a number of local authorities and the National Institute for Social Security.

Chief among the accused were the Swiss Stephan Ernest Schmidheiny and the Belgian Louis De Cartier de Marchienne. As executives until 1896 of both Swiss and Belgian Eternit concerns, they had run four asbestos factories in Italy, which were responsible for the exposure to asbestos of thousands of workers as well as their families and others who shared their homes, while the environment around the factories was also seriously contaminated. The Ministry demanded a penal sentence of twenty years, and on 16th February 2012, the court sent both men to prison for sixteen years, as well as ordering them to pay large amounts in compensation. In addition the two were banned from fulfilling any public function, deprived of their rights as citizens for the entire duration of the sentence and from being awarded contracts with the public administration for a further three years.

Three parties played an important role in bringing the case before the Turin criminal court. In the first place was the organisation of asbestos victims in the Northern Italian town of Casale Monferrato, AFeVA, under the leadership of Romana Blasotti Pavesi, who lost not only her husband to an asbestos-related disease but also four members of her family. At the end of the 1970s she became active in the fight against asbestos. The second important contribution came from the trade union which cooperated closely with AFeVA . The SP also lent its support to the Italian victims at an early stage by its knowledge gained in court cases brought against Eternit in the Netherlands, knowledge which played a clear role in the trial.

The third important player was the Office for Public Prosecutions in Turin, which has specialised in the protection of health in the workplace and was headed by the Officer of Justice Guariniello. He began as early as 2005 to prepare for the criminal prosecution of Eternit. Over the years the OM had come to the conclusion that the criminal law code offered the possibility to treat as punishable offences any deliberate ignoring of safety regulations in the work process and on those grounds to take legal action against corporations and executives of firms. Before the OM did just that, bringing a criminal prosecution against, they had already successfully trod the same path in the case of the Thyssen company.

The Turin criminal case against Eternit corporations and their executives is unique not only by dint of the way in which the Office for Public Prosecutions took criminal proceedings, but also because the years of cooperation between the organisation of asbestos victims and the union demonstrated that victims could fight back, as a result of which they managed to win compensation not only via the civil law but also in terms of the criminal law.

In addition, the enormous importance of this case lies in the fact that a criminal prosecution was brought against the big, powerful Eternit multinationals, who ran asbestos cement factories in thirty-five countries, factories in which they not only created victims amongst the factory workers themselves and those with whom they shared their homes, but caused enormous damage to the environment. Until the trial in Turin the Eternit multinationals were in only a very few countries confronted with actions under civil law leading to the award of damages. The Turin criminal case has taught us that it is also possible for asbestos victims to have recourse to recognition under criminal law and thus to coerce the perpetrators to give satisfaction.

Given the fact that Eternit multinationals have in many parts of Europe manufactured and sold deadly dangerous asbestos cement products, it is clear that criminal prosecutions against these concerns will follow in more countries.

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