Italys Hope and Glory
On July 21, 2016, the news finally came. Italys Constitutional Court issued its ruling in the long-running battle to achieve justice for Italys asbestos victims.1 The verdict was categorical a second round of proceedings (Eternit BIS) against Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny could go ahead.2 The fact that the defendant had already been tried over asbestos deaths of Italian citizens did not prevent him from facing additional charges. It is clear, the Constitutional Courts verdict stated that even from the strictly material point of view, the death of a person, although occasioned by the same conduct, gives rise to a new event, and therefore an act other than the death of other people.
In 2014 Italys Supreme Court (Court of Cassation) had overturned on technical grounds a 2012 conviction which had sentenced Schmidheiny (former owner of the Swiss Eternit asbestos group) to 18 years in jail for negligence and wilful disaster as a result of which thousands of workers and members of the public had died. Even as the Supreme Court had been deliberating its decision in the final appeal of that case, Public Prosecutors had begun investigating grounds for bringing another case against Schmidheiny; one in which he could be accused of murder. Schmidheinys legal team claimed that the new case was void under the legal principle of double jeopardy a person could not be tried twice for the same crime. The investigating magistrate asked for guidance on this issue from the Constitutional Court which heard the case on May 31, 2016. Referencing a number of rulings by the European Court of Human Rights, it rejected arguments submitted by Schmidheinys defense team explaining that were one not to consider the claims of these victims, future claimants would also be denied their rights.3 Commenting on the import of this verdict, former Turin Public Prosecutor Raffaele Guariniello, who pioneered the litigation against Schmidheiny, said: this ruling will rekindle the faith in justice in Italy and in the world.
The murder case has now been returned to the Turin court of investigating magistrate Federica Bompieri who had in July 2015 asked the Constitutional Court to rule on whether or not the Schmidheiny indictment on 258 murder charges could proceed. Bompieri could make important pre-trial rulings or refer the case to the Court of Assizes after the trial. According to an expert in Italian legal procedures:
if the GUP [investigating magistrate] agrees to hold hearings on the extensive evidence and rule on whether the charges can be reduced from murder to manslaughter then some cases might be excluded on grounds of statute of limitations, and the jurisdiction of the court might be removed to a more rural district from Turin. On the other hand, the GUP could simply turn the case over to the Court of Assizes in Turin, which would then hear all the evidence and decide at the end of the trial whether to convict SS [Schmidheiny] for murder or manslaughter. This happened in the recent Thyssen-Krupp case, involving a fire at a chemical plant, where Italian managers were convicted and jailed (a convicted German manager was also convicted and will have to be extradited to join them).
The Court of Assizes judicial panel will consist of two professional judges and 6 persons chosen off the voters' roll, ordinary citizens. The citizen judges will be paid as civil servants for the duration of the trial. After the Italian courts have fully dealt with the case, the decision can be appealed to the European Court of Human Rights.
Having waited so long for the Italian Republic to recognize the damage done to workers and members of the public as a result of decisions taken by Stephan Schmidheiny, asbestos victims and the groups representing them have been given hope that justice will be done. The world waits with them.
August 3, 2016
1 Constitutional Court OKs fresh trial (2). July 21, 2016.
Also see: Website of Constitutional Court:
2 For background information on this see: Eternit and The Great Asbestos Trial.