ROME - An Italian court Monday convicted two men of negligence in some 2,000 asbestos-related deaths blamed on contamination from a construction company, sentencing each of them to 16 years in prison and ordering them to pay millions in what officials called a historic case.
Italian Health Minister Renato Balduzzi hailed the verdict by the three-judge Turin court as "without exaggeration, truly historic," noting that it came after a long battle for justice.
"It's a great day, but that doesn't mean the battle against asbestos is over," he told Sky TG24 TV, stressing that it is a worldwide problem.
Prosecutors said Jean-Louise de Cartier of Belgium and Stephan Schmidheiny of Switzerland, both key shareholders in the Swiss construction firm Eternit, failed to stop asbestos fibres left over from production of roof coverings and pipes at its northern Italian factories from spreading across the region.
During the trial, which has stretched on since December 2009, some 2,100 deaths or illnesses were blamed on the asbestos fibers, which can cause grave lung problems, including cancer. Prosecutors said the contamination stretched over decades.
The defendants had denied wrongdoing.
Hundreds of people, many of them who had lost parents or spouses to asbestos-linked diseases, crowded the courtroom and two nearby halls to gather for the verdict. When the convictions were announced, some of the spectators wept.
Two hours after announcing the convictions, Judge Giuseppe Casalbore was still reading the court's complete verdict, which included awards of monetary damages from civil lawsuits from some 6,300 victims or their relatives who alleged that loved ones either died or were left ill from asbestos.
LaPresse news agency, reporting from the courthouse, said the defendants were ordered to pay $32.5 million to the town of Casale Monferrato, where one of the factories was located and where asbestos was used in road construction, and $26 million to the Piedmont region.
Overall, compensation was averaging about $45,000 a claimant, it said.
A woman who helped spearhead the efforts for compensation, Romana Blasotti, and three of her relatives, were awarded $315,000. Blassotti lost her husband, a former Eternit factory worker, a daughter and three other relatives to asbestos-linked diseases, LaPresse reported.
"Justice has been rendered to the families," Bruno Pesce, who heads one of the associations of victims, was quoted by the Italian news agency ANSA as saying.