On 18 November 2014, a delegation of 13 Forum members travelled from the UK to Italy. Our itinerary would be to spend 2 days in Rome to ness the Italian Supreme Court’s verdict on the Eternit trial; we would then travel to the town of Casale Monferrato near Turin where we were to meet victims of the environmental disaster which has resulted from the Eternit company’s operations and subsequent abandoning of their asbestos factory there in 1986. In Casale, home to the largest of Eternit’s four plants in Italy, 1,800 people have died of asbestos-related diseases, including some 800 who never even worked for the company.
Our delegation included Doug Jewell, Chair of the Asbestos Victims Support Group Forum UK; Mary Law (West Midlands) who lost her son to Mesothelioma; the following 8 ladies who lost their husbands to asbestos-related diseases: Jean Doyle (Manchester), Pauline Ward (Manchester), Yvette Oldham (Nottingham), Angela Sharp (Nottingham), Pat Coles (West Midlands) Georgina Magee (Merseyside), Yvonne Neild, accompanied by her daughter, Gemma (Merseyside); Yvonne Washbourne, Chair of the West Midlands Support Group; Stuart Baker, representing the construction workers trade union, UCATT; and myself, Jeff Eaman, a welfare rights adviser with the Greater Manchester Asbestos Victims Support Group.
On our arrival at our hotel in Rome on the evening of 18 November we were welcomed by representatives of AFEVA (the Italian Association of Asbestos Victims’ Relatives): Romana Blasotti Pavesi (President) Bruno Pesce (asbestos litigation coordinator), Nicola Pondrano (CGIL branch secretary for Casale), Alessandro Pugno etc. We were then introduced to other delegations who had travelled from France, Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Brazil and Japan. The atmosphere was warm and convivial, there being a widely-shared sense of optimism regarding the outcome of the following day’s appeal hearing.
That sense of optimism was borne from the fact that the hearing was the final stage of criminal proceedings which had seen Stephan Schmidheiny, a former executive and key shareholder in the Swiss construction firm Eternit, convicted of ‘environmental negligence’ and sentenced to 16 years imprisonment in 2012; a prison sentence which was increased to 18 years by an appeal court in 2013. Schmidheiny was sentenced in absentia and ordered to pay tens of millions of euros in compensation to local authorities and families of the victims who included factory workers and residents who lived near Eternit factories in northern, central and southern Italy. It was anticipated that the verdict of the Court of Cassation (Supreme Court) would ratify the above convictions.
On Wednesday 19 November the Supreme Court hearing got under way at 9.00 am and would continue into the evening. Meanwhile, outside the Court on Piazza Cavour, we and the other international delegations unfurled our respective banners and made our presence felt before an assembly of Italian journalists. During the late morning the various members of our group managed to get access to the court room for a brief period in order to get a sense of the proceedings. Some 300 people would pack the court room throughout the day, many of whom were victims’ relatives who had travelled from Casale by bus.
At about 8.30 in the evening we were advised to return to the court to hear the verdict. We were warned, however, that the day’s proceedings had taken an unexpected turn and that the outcome might not be as favourable as had been anticipated. At 9.00 pm the judge delivered a short, 5 minute speech which was met by a stunned silence. The verdict was that the statute of limitations in the environmental negligence case against Schmidheiny had expired and that the sentences already passed against him were therefore revoked. It was not long before the silence gave way to an angry chorus of protest, which in turn gave way to emotional scenes as people tried to comfort shocked and tearful victims and their relatives.
As the crowd exited the building, Bruno Pesce gave an emotional but measured interview in front of a battery of lights and TV cameras. The next day, Thursday 20 November, started with a press conference at the Congress of the UIL union federation. Romana Blasotti Pavesi, President of Afeva, expressed her profound disappointment with the verdict, but ended any speculation that their 30 year fight for justice was over. Along with other international delegates, I made a short statement of support on behalf of the Forum.
Although able to speak Italian, I was not familiar with some of the more arcane aspects of Italian law and it took some time before we were able to understand what had transpired in the court. It appeared that the Public Prosecutor had made a speech which acknowledged that Schmidheiny’s criminal negligence had led to the deaths of some 3,000 workers and residents in Italy and also accepted that the convictions against him were just. Bizarrely, however, the Prosecutor had proposed o the Tribunal that the convictions against Schmidheiny should be revoked due to the statute of limitations. The Prosecutor argued that even though it would be just to convict Schmidheiny, formal and procedural legal provisions should prevail. There was, he argued, a conflict here between the ‘Law’ and ‘Justice’, but as a servant of the Law he advocated that the former should prevail. The Court followed his advice and acquitted Schmidheiny.
(The Italian criminal system has a statute limiting the time for prosecution of all crimes, apart from felonies punishable by life imprisonment, to a period of six years for delitti (serious crimes) and four years for contravvenzioni (misdemeanours). It is not enough that the criminal suit be started before the statute of limitations runs out: it is the definitive sentence that must be handed down before the term expires. Italy’s Sky TG 24 reported in 2012 that ’140,000 trials were ended last year because of the statute of limitations, and that they mostly affect corruption cases, which often don’t come to light for years after the fact’. Those who are familiar with Italian politics will recall that it was the invoking of the statute of limitations which spared former Prime Minister, Berlusconi, verdicts in other trials related to his media business since the 1990s).
What is so cruelly absurd about this statute of limitations ruling is that it has absolved Schmidheiny of any responsibility on the ground that the Casale plant closed in 1986. The ruling takes no account of the fact that the average length of time between exposure to asbestos and the onset of disease can be as much as 50 years. Meanwhile, virtually every week in Casale (pop. 36,000) doctors diagnose a new case of mesothelioma, a form of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.
Italy’s Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, added his voice to the chorus of outrage which the verdict had provoked by calling for a reform of the Italian justice system to speed up trials. Meanwhile, a spokesman for Schmidheiny was quoted as urging the Italian government to “protect” him from any more “unjustified” charges, noting that Schmidheiny never had an operative role in the company and never received any profit from his shares in it.
On the afternoon of 20 November we travelled by train to Milan and then by coach to Casale, unsure about what kind of reception we would receive given the turn of events. Our concerns were allayed however when, on our arrival, we were met in the town square by the mayor of Casale and a group of about 100 townspeople who greeted us warmly. In a restaurant that evening, we learned from our hosts that, in response to the news of the verdict, the church bells in Casale and surrounding towns and villages had been rung for the whole day and spontaneous demonstrations had taken place in Casale and other large towns in the Piedmont region.
On Friday 21 November, we attended a press conference in the Town Hall where representatives of the international delegations were invited to comment on the verdict. We also had the opportunity to introduce the individual members of our party, the majority of whom, as we have seen, were bereaved partners and relatives of asbestos victims. In the afternoon, the delegation representatives assisted Afeva in formulating a press release in Italian and English. See below *
In the late afternoon, a much bigger gathering took place in a local community hall. From the stage, representatives from Afeva, local and regional authorities, political parties and trade unions addressed an audience of over 1,000 people, asserting their commitment to continue the fight for justice. Afeva confirmed that they were already considering their options of pursuing a case against Schmidheiny for murder which was not subject to the statute of limitations, and/or of appealing to the European Court of Human Rights. At the end of a highly emotional speech, Bruno Pesce invited the international delegations up on to the stage where we were honoured to receive a huge round of applause.
On leaving the hall we joined in a torch-lit demonstration of some 3,000 people which moved in silence through the streets of Casale. The silence of the procession, in particular, made a very powerful and lasting impression. As we made our way around the town, I entered into conversation with Alain Bobbio, a spokesman for the French anti-asbestos association, Andeva. When we reached the main square, Alain pointed out a long road, via Roma, which ran from where we were standing to the site where the Eternit factory had been. Alain related how, before the factory was demolished in 1993, the wind would carry asbestos dust up via Roma and deposit it in the town square. As just one consequence of this environmental disaster, virtually every household on via Roma has since lost someone to an asbestos-related disease.
After a farewell meal with our Italian friends we returned to our hotels late on the Friday evening. At 6.00 the next morning we boarded our coach which would take us to Milan’s Malpensa airport. The journey home would give us an opportunity to reflect on what had been an unforgettable experience, a whirlwind trip where the itinerary seemed to change from hour to hour and an emotional roller-coaster:
We came because we were concerned to show our solidarity with a cause which, on the part of the people of Casale, has been so impressive and inspiring. One of the reasons Afeva and the people of Casale pursued this criminal trial is because there is little alternative in securing any kind of justice for asbestos victims. In Italy the only financial support available to victims of asbestos-related diseases is a state benefit equivalent to our Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit. Because legal proceedings can run on for years, the cost of hiring a lawyer to pursue a civil claim for compensation through the courts is almost always prohibitive.
We came to Italy because, despite our respective countries’ social, cultural, political and legal differences, we share an understanding of what the personal implications are for victims of asbestos-related diseases, and for their families. In the UK, for example, we see 5,000 new diagnoses of asbestos-related diseases each year, half of which are mesothelioma. With regards the asbestos industry we also share a common history. We know, for example, that Turner & Newall, the largest asbestos company in the UK, had commercial links with Eternit’s international cartel.
We know that Turner & Newall’s owners and directors knew in the 1930s how toxic their product was, but did everything possible to hide the truth for the sake of the company’s profitability. As a result of this deception, while so many early asbestos victims were denied due compensation, it would take several decades before the dangers of asbestos became public knowledge and, consequently, before effective protective regulations came into force.
We came to Italy also because the case against Eternit has a symbolic importance on an international level. Today asbestos is illegal in more than 60 countries including most modern industrialised nations with the notable exceptions of the US and Canada, which was until recently the world’s largest producer of asbestos. While Canadian miners are banned from selling their product on the domestic market, they remain free to export it to fast-growing countries such as India and Brazil. Eternit has ongoing vested interests in global asbestos markets.
For industrialising countries, the asbestos industry has always has been lucrative and has also provided much sought after employment for thousands of workers. However, given the widespread knowledge of the long-term health risks associated with even minimal exposure to asbestos, one can only conclude that those who continue to promote and profit from the asbestos industry do so with a callous indifference towards the health and safety of their employees and with a cynical disregard for human life.
Perhaps the thing we will remember above all else about coming to Italy was that fact that the victims we met were no different from the asbestos victims we meet every week in the UK: ordinary men and women who had gone out to work to earn a living and bring up their families.
We thank Afeva and the people of Casale for their kind and generous hospitality and pledge them our support in their continuing struggle for justice.
Jeff Eaman Manchester
* Afeva’s 21 November press release