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Bosses sentenced to 16 years for Italian asbestos deaths

An Italian court has handed two company executives 16-year jail terms for the asbestos-related deaths of more than 3,000 people.

Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny, 64, and Baron Louis de Cartier de Marchienne, 90, the former heads of the Eternit cement company, were found guilty of failing to ensure adequate safety measures at two asbestos-cement plants active in Italy until the 1980s.

Prosecutors in the northern city of Turin said the deaths occurred from asbestos-linked tumours among Eternit staff, their families, and people living near the factories who breathed in asbestos dust in the air. Many hundreds more are ill with terminal mesothelioma cancer caused by the substance.

The Health Minister, Renato Balduzzi, said after the verdicts: "It's a sentence that you can call truly historic for its social aspects and for its technical and legal ones."

Defence lawyers denied the accused had direct responsibility for the Italian company, and the pair have been absent from court throughout.

"It's a fair verdict which acknowledges their responsibility... the problem now is to see if the condemned men will face up to their obligations, because we're not sure," lawyer Sergio Bonetto told AFP.

Some relatives of victims burst into tears in court when the sentence was read for the world's largest-ever trial into asbestos-related deaths and illnesses.

"This trial will go down in history... but it will not bring my dad back," said Piero Ferraris, whose father Evasio died in 1988 of lung cancer after working in a local Eternit factory from 1946 to 1979.