Stephan Schmidheiny in the Dock: Again! 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen

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On Friday, January 24, 2020, in a hushed courtroom in Vercelli, northern Italy, the Preliminary Hearing Magistrate Judge Fabrizio Filice read out the latest ruling in the long-standing battle to get justice for thousands of Italy’s asbestos victims. Once again, the defendant was billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny, “Swiss entrepreneur, philanthropist and advocate of sustainable development,”1 and former owner of the Swiss Eternit asbestos group. Despite the best efforts of the defendant’s legal team to have the case dismissed or the charges downgraded, Filice accepted the request of the public prosecutor and ordered Schmidheiny to face trial for the voluntary murder (“omicidio volontario”) of 392 people who died from asbestos-related diseases in the town of Casale Monferrato, the site of an Eternit asbestos-cement factory.2 The trial – due to start on November 27 – will take place in the District Court of Assizes in Novara. The Novara court will consist of two professional judges and six citizen judges, aged 35 or older chosen from the electoral roll.

The same defendant is currently being tried – also in absentia – at the Naples Court of Assizes in relation to the deaths of Eternit plant workers in Bagnoli, Naples. In May last year (2019), the entrepreneur was sentenced by a Turin Court to four years in jail on charges of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the asbestos deaths of an employee from the Cavagnolo (Turin) Eternit factory and a resident who lived near the plant. Commenting on that verdict, the President of the Association of Asbestos Victims and Family Members of Casale Monferrato (AFeVA) Giuliana Busto said: “It is a beginning, even if the road is still long.” Prosecutor Gianfranco Colace regarded the conviction as a “first step,” saying that he hoped “this decision will mark the return of judgments that are more attentive to victims.” 3

Vowing to appeal, the defandant’s lawyers were scathing about the “scandalous” 2019 Turin judgment. Swiss supporters of Schmidheiny said he was “the scapegoat of the Italian state's inertia,” which “for decades failed to regulate the treatment and use of asbestos.” These arguments are shared by Schmidheiny who in December 2019 – breaking with years of media silence – told Swiss journalists Chanchal Biswas and Alain Zucker that the judicial actions against him were tantamount to “state torture” by a “failed state.” Being the target of this sustained campaign 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.”4

The lawsuits against Schmidheiny are part of a litigation process referred to in Italy as Eternit BIS (Eternit II). The first tranche of litigation, Eternit I, against the defendant saw him convicted on February 13, 2012 for causing a wilful permanent environmental disaster and failing to comply with safety regulations as a result of which thousands of workers and members of the public had died from asbestos-related diseases; he was sentenced to 16 years in jail.5 Upholding that judgment on June 3, 2013, the Turin Appeal Court increased the sentence to 18 years in prison for the environmental crimes committed. In 2014, however, Italy’s Supreme Court (Court of Cassation) vacated the verdict on technical grounds: the environmental crimes were time-barred. In 2015, Public Prosecutors in Turin again filed charges, this time for “premeditated killing.” There is no statute of limitation for this or other crimes which result in death: e.g. “omicidio colposo” (manslaughter). The proceedings were divided and sent to courts in Novara, Turin, Reggio Emilia and Naples. In his recent interview, Schmidheiny expressed the view that he was a victim of the unjust Italian State; the Italian courts may decide differently.

January 28, 2020


1 Stephan Schmidheiny. Wikipedia. Accessed January 27, 2020.

2 Of the 392 people who died from asbestos-related diseases in Casale Monferrato, 62 were former Eternit workers occupationally exposed to asbestos and 330 were local people who suffered environmental exposures. 

3 Kazan-Allen, L. Italian Asbestos Deaths – New Conviction. May 24, 2019.

4 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 flyers”]. December 28, 2019.
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.

5 Kazan-Allen, L. Landmark Victory for Italian Asbestos Victims. February 18, 2012.



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