Eternit on Trial
Eternit, an international asbestos conglomerate, prided itself on its dominance and control of national asbestos debates. Where adverse news emerged which could impact on the company's reputation, public relations squads were tasked with damage limitation. To a large extent, they succeeded. They did so by devising detailed, long-term strategies for monitoring developments, neutralising critics and manipulating public opinion. The availability of seemingly limitless funds enabled Eternit spin-doctors to take whatever steps were deemed necessary, and they did so with an alacrity and expansiveness that ensured that the company received maximum protection from allegations made by people injured by exposure to Eternit asbestos.
Unfortunately for Eternit, Italian activists would not be silenced. Due to the determination of the people of Casale Monferrato and the persistence of the Turin prosecutors, two former Eternit executives have been accused and tried for their alleged involvement in the company's negligent exploitation of asbestos. The charges against Stephan Schmidheiny and Baron Jean Louis Marie Ghislain De Cartier de Marchienne include allegations of wilfully causing an environmental disaster and failure to comply with safety rules. Neither defendant has appeared in the Turin court. On Monday, November 21, 2011, the proceedings ended after two years, 65 hearings and 18 preliminary hearings. The asbestos victims, plaintiffs, prosecutors, lawyers and defendants have to wait until February 13, 2012 when the verdict will be read by Chief Justice Giuseppe Casalbore. The prosecution is calling for sentences of 20 years for the defendants.
On November 22, a meeting was held by the association representing the victims of Casale Monferrato (AFEVA) and the labor organizations backing the case including CGIL, CISL, and UIL. A press release issued the following day responded to current developments including the surprise attempt by defendant Stephan Schmidheiny to terminate the involvement in the trial of municipal authorities from Casale Monferrato. At the beginning of November, as the trial was drawing to its close, Schmidheiny offered the town up to €20 million to withdraw from this and all future cases against him. Although the terms of this arrangement were communicated to Mr Demezzi, the Mayor of Casale Monferrato, they only became known to the asbestos victims via a newspaper report published on November 7. Schmidheiny's ploy, termed the devil's offer by Italian journalist Silvana Mossano, had been used some months ago when Schmidheiny's legal advisors negotiated the withdrawal from the trial of the small community of Cavagnolo. The November 23 press release makes clear the outrage felt by the victims and calls on the civic authorities to reject Schmidheiny's offer.
Meanwhile, another trial against Eternit which began in a Brussels courtroom on October 24, 2011 has also focused public attention on the Group's culpable behaviour. This is believed to be the first legal case initiated in Belgium against Eternit, one of the country's biggest and most-entrenched corporations. The fact that it has taken over a decade for the family of mesothelioma victim Francoise Jonckheere to get their day in court is a clear indication of the ground-breaking nature of this trial.1 The verdict in this case is expected on Monday, November 28, 2011.
November 24, 2011
1 Kazan-Allen L. Justice for Francoise?