Justice for Françoise?
Eleven years after her death from mesothelioma, the family of Françoise Jonckheere witnessed the beginning of a landmark trial in the Palais de Justice, Brussels when the case against Eternit, the owners of the asbestos-cement factory in Kapelle-op-den-Bos, commenced. This is the first civil case brought on behalf of a Belgian who, as a result of environmental exposure to asbestos, contracted an asbestos-related disease. That this trial was so long in the making comes as no surprise to Belgian asbestos victims who have long experienced the conspiracy of silence orchestrated by Eternit, one of Belgium's industrial giants and a multinational conglomerate with powerful friends at home and abroad.
Mrs. Jonckheere lived in a house in Kappelle within yards of the factory's premises. Indeed, it was part of her husband Pierre's employment contract with Eternit that he live nearby. Due to the asbestos exposure he received whilst employed by Eternit, Pierre contracted mesothelioma and died in 1987, at the age of 60. Françoise never worked with asbestos; her exposure was from the dust which permeated the air, soil and water in Kapelle. She was disgusted by Eternit's behaviour and appalled at the insulting offer the company made her to settle the case. She would not join the ranks of those who had been bought off by the company and was determined to pave the way for others who the company had injured. She told her five sons that she wanted to fight her case no matter how long it took. Eric, Pierre-Paul, Stephane, Xavier and Benoit honored her wishes. Françoise died in 2000; unfortunately in 2003 her son Pierre-Paul died of mesothelioma, aged 44 and six years later his brother Stephane suffered the same fate; he was 46 years old.
On Sunday, October 23, a series of events took place at the Palais des Beaux Arts (Palace of Beautiful Arts) in Brussels to highlight the importance of this case. A press conference was held after which a short seminar was addressed by Eric Jonckheere, Françoise's oldest son, the family's lawyer Jan Ferman, Belgian journalist Marleen Teugels, French asbestos victims' campaigner Pierre Pluta and Laurie Kazan-Allen, an international ban asbestos activist. The lively question and answer session which followed illustrated the broad-based anger felt by those who had been unable to obtain justice through the Belgian courts for the loss of loved ones. Concluding the day's events was the Belgian premiere showing of the Italian documentary called Poussiere mortelle (Deadly dust), inspired by the asbestos epidemic caused by Eternit's asbestos cement operations in the Italian town of Casale Monferrato. Documentary makers Niccolo Bruna and Andrea Prandstraller presented their film to a capacity audience and later answered questions about the genesis of the project and the experiences of filming in Italy, Brazil and India.
On Monday morning (October 24), hundreds of supporters mounted a vigil in front of the Palais de Justice prior to the commencement of the trial. Françoise's three surviving sons were there surrounded by family members and supporters from Belgium, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the UK.
Eric Jonckheere being interviewed by Belgian TV.
Benoit Jonckheere holding photographs of his parents Pierre and Françoise.
Xavier Jonckheere (left) with his Aunt, Pierre's sister (middle) and other Jonckheere family members.
The torrent of coverage on TV and in the newspapers of this trial is a clear indication that the years of media censorship of the asbestos debate in Belgium are long over. A Google search for the name of Françoise Jonckheere on October 26 produced nearly 100 articles in French, Flemish and Portuguese. We can only hope that after 11 long years, Françoise's sons are able to fulfil the promise they made to their Mother.
October 26, 2011