- The sentences were handed down in absentia
- Swiss fiber cement manufacturer Eternit had no comment
- Eternit officers were accused of failing to protect workers from asbestos
- More than 1,500 people attended the three-hour sentencing hearing
An Italian court sentenced two officers of a Swiss company to 16-year prison terms in absentia Monday for the deaths of about 2,000 workers who prosecutors said were exposed to asbestos.
Stephan Schmidheiny, the Swiss owner of the fiber-cement firm Eternit, and Belgian former executive and investor Jean Louis Marie Ghislain de Cartier de Marchienne were accused of failing to protect workers in the company's four Italian factories before they were shuttered in 1986. They were also ordered to pay a total of 80 million euros ($105 million) to more than 6,000 people, including former workers and residents who lived near their plants.
Bruno Pesce, the leader of Italy's asbestos victims association, said more than 1,500 people attended Monday's hearing -- including some who were suffering from asbestos-linked illnesses.
"It was a very emotional moment," Pesce said. "People were crying because of tension and then of happiness."
Judge Giuseppe Casalbore needed three hours to read the sentence at Monday's hearing, held in the Italian industrial hub of Turin.
Prosecutors argued that Schmidheiny and de Cartier failed to take steps to protect workers from asbestos, now known to cause cancer. The verdict "is an incredible step forward" and "a milestone for justice worldwide, since asbestos is not only manufactured in Italy," prosecutor Raffaele Guariniello said after the hearing.
Eternit did not respond to a request for comment on the decision. But Renato Balduzzi, Italy's health minister, called the sentence "historic."
Asbestos was once widely used as a fireproofing material and was included in roof shingles and siding for decades. Though now banned in Italy and most Western countries, asbestos is still used in developing countries, mainly in China and India.
Barry Castelman, an environmental scientist from the United States who testified as an expert witness in the Turin case, said asbestos and cancer had been linked since the 1950s.
"The importance of today's sentence is that it establishes a personal criminal responsibility of the production firm's executives, who will now learn the lesson," Castelman said.