Déjà Vu: Stephan Schmidheiny in the Dock  

by Laurie Kazan-Allen

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On the morning of June 9, 2021, asbestos victims, their relatives and supporters again made their way to an Italian courthouse to bear witness: another day, another trial against Stephan Schmidheiny. The former CEO of the Swiss Eternit Group is facing charges of intentional homicide at the Assizes Court of Novara over hundreds of asbestos-related deaths in the town of Casale Monferrato including those of 62 former workers and 330 members of the public killed by exposure to Eternit’s asbestos.1 In the last decade, the Swiss billionaire has been charged by public prosecutors in various Italian jurisdictions with murder, manslaughter, aggravated culpable homicide, causing permanent environmental damage and failing to comply with safety rules.2 On May 23, 2019, the defendant was sentenced in absentia to four years for the involuntary manslaughter of two individuals from Cavagnolo, both of whom died from asbestos-related diseases. Prison sentences handed down in 2012 & 2013 of 16 and 18 years respectively were vacated on technical grounds by the Court of Cassation (Supreme Court) in 2014.

This process is another landmark in the 35-year long fight for justice by campaigners from the iconic town of Casale Monferrato – the former location of Eternit’s largest European asbestos-cement factory.3 The rate of respiratory cancer in the town is twenty times higher than the national average with fifty new cases of asbestos diseases diagnosed every year. According to epidemiological data, more than 3,000 people in Casale Monferrato, a town of just 35,000 inhabitants, have died due to asbestos-related diseases over the years. For forty years there has been a “climate of persistent psychosis” in the town said veteran trade union campaigner Nicola Pondrano:

“Here fear has no face, shape, or smell. It has only one name: asbestos… A sneaky and invisible enemy whose fibers are a thousand times thinner than a hair. A poison that came from the factory and threatened everyone… Everyone in the city has at least one relative, a friend, a neighbor who has died.”

An earlier prediction that the municipal asbestos epidemic would peak in 2020 was incorrect; the number of deaths will continue to rise, at least, until 2025 say scientists. Nationally, a further 26,000 Italians are expected to die from asbestos-related diseases in the next twenty years.

Ordinarily, a trial arising from offenses committed in Casale Monferrato would be conducted in Vercelli. There is, however, no Court of Assizes in Vercelli and as this is a case in which the charge is intentional homicide, the appropriate venue is the Novara Court of Assizes. Due to the large number of interested parties, arrangements were made for the proceedings to be held in an auditorium of the University of Novara. 4 Because of Covid restrictions, however, access to the public trial was being restricted to judges, lawyers, civil parties and a maximum of 15 journalists.

The case is being presided over by Dr Gianfranco Pezone, president of the criminal section of the court with Dr Manuela Massino, a Turin magistrate appointed as an associate judge; six citizen judges, aged 35 or older chosen from the electoral role, have been designated to act as a jury. Public Prosecutors Dr Maria Giovanna Compare and Dr Gianfranco Colace will be making the case against the defendant who will, once again, be defended by a large and well-resourced legal team. Schmidheiny, who has never appeared in person at any of the Italian trials, has said that the legal actions against him were tantamount to “state torture” by a “failed state.” Being the target of this sustained legal vendetta had, he said, injured his mental health and forced him to find solace in meditation to deal with “his hatred of Italians.” He had, he told the journalists “no intention of seeing an Italian prison from the inside.”5

The next hearing in the case will be on July 5, 2021

June 15, 2021


1 Allen, D. & Kazan-Allen, L. Eternit & The Great Asbestos Trial. 2012.

2 Kazan-Allen, L. Stephan Schmidheiny in the Dock: Again! January 28, 2020.

3 There was widespread coverage of the trial in the Italian media including a front page article on June 8, 2021 in La Stampa.
Abbura, A. L’ex patron di Eternit ritorna alla sbarra. I parenti delle vittime: “Vogliamo giustizia” [The former patron of Eternit returns to the bar. Relatives of the victims: “We want justice”]. June 8, 2021.
There were also multiple articles in regional and national newspapers about the trial:
Google search Eternit Bis: https://tinyurl.com/yfdrkaer and Google search Schmidheiny amianto: https://tinyurl.com/wrb5dp7x

4 Eternit Bis: ieri prima udienza a Novara. Le prossime «a porte chiuse», ma accedono le parti lese
[Eternit Bis: yesterday first hearing in Novara. The next “behind closed doors,” but the injured parties enter].

5 Biswas, C. and Zucker, A. Stephan Schmidheiny: Weniger Fleisch essen bringt viel mehr als Flugscham [Stephan Schmidheiny: “Eating less meat does much more than shaming air travellers”]. December 28, 2019. https://nzzas.nzz.ch/wirtschaft/stephan-schmidheiny-1992-war-die-zeit-noch-nicht-reif-fuer-greta-ld.1530937?reduced=true
Pegoraro, A. Mr Eternit ora insulta l'Italia: "Un Paese fallito, io vi odio" [Mr Eternit now insults Italy: “A failed country, I hate you”]. Jan 24, 2020. http://www.ilgiornale.it/news/cronache/processo-eternit-bis-schmidheiny-provo-odio-italiani-1816184.html



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