An Italian court has convicted a Swiss tycoon and a Belgian baron of negligence over some 2,200 asbestos-related deaths.
Stephan Schidheiny and Jean-Louis de Cartier each got 16 years in prison.
The Turin court said the two had failed to comply with safety rules at building firm Eternit, where they were key shareholders. They denied the charges.
Prosecutors argued that thousands had died from contact with asbestos fibres processed in four of the firm’s plants.
Swiss Schmidheiny, 64, and Belgian De Cartier, 90, were sentenced in absentia on Monday.
Their charges carry a maximum 12-year term, but during the trial the prosecutors had pushed for a harsher punishment, arguing that the fallout continued to affect victims.
They also said Eternit’s plants had spread asbestos fibres over parts of northern Italy by allowing powder left over from production of roof coverings and pipes to waft through the air.
Some 1,500 relatives and supporters of the victims watched the final day of the trial on large TV screens set up in Turin.
"This trial will go down in history... but it will not bring my dad back," Piero Ferraris, whose father Evasio died in 1988 of lung cancer after working in a local Eternit factory, was quoted as saying by the AFP news agency.
Eternit closed its operations in Italy in 1986 - six years before asbestos was banned in the country.
Australian advocates for mesothelioma sufferers have welcomed a decision by an Italian court to jail two building firm shareholders for 16 years each over the negligence shown to their workers who died from asbestos-related diseases.
Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny, the former owner of a company making Eternit fibre cement, and Belgian baron Jean-Louis Marie Ghislain de Cartier de Marchienne, a major shareholder, were sentenced this week, with the whole world watching.
The trial, which began in 2009 after a five-year investigation, is the biggest of its kind against a multinational for asbestos-related deaths and the verdict sets a potential precedent around the world.
Robert Vojakovic, President of the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia, hailed the decision as a win for victims of asbestos diseases.
"The actions of these men and the company they controlled have caused the deaths of untold numbers of workers and condemned many more to potential deadly asbestos related diseases, wreaking terrible havoc on those workers, and their families," he said.
He said asbestos companies should be sold and the money donated to medical research since the product’s deadly fibre had been responsible for the deaths of 20,000 Australians and possibly another 30,000, who have since been diagnosed with asbestos-related illnesses.
"They cause more harm than good and should be forced to pay medical expenses rather than hire expensive lawyers to protect themselves," he said.
Asbestos Disease Foundation of Australia President Barry Robson said the Italian justice system had shown Australia and the rest of the world what an appropriate sentence looked like.
"This verdict vindicates what we have known all along – it is simply criminal to knowingly expose workers and their families to asbestos," Mr Robson said.
"Schmidheiny and de Marchienne were reckless and cavalier with the lives of others, resulting in countless deaths. Sixteen years in prison is an appropriate sentence for such a crime.
"Yet, in Australia we have not seen one director or owner go to jail for manslaughter.
"This verdict should give them pause – but it will only be truly effective if Australia and the rest of the developed world follows Italy’s fine example."
But WA mesothelioma sufferer Jack Ling said he was not interested in pursuing companies over criminal charges, only seeking compensation for future medical bills.
Mr Ling was diagnosed last month after working with asbestos at Alcoa’s Pinjarra and Kwinana plants from 1979 until 1988.
"I was a fitter and all the pipes were covered in asbestos and when anything went wrong we would cut the asbestos off to mend the pipe," he said.
"There was no working gear, no breathing apparatus at all, but now you have to wear them."
He said he didn’t think it would be "fair to jail blokes, who didn’t know any more than I did".
Slater & Gordon Asbestos Lawyer Simon Millman said the court’s decision sent a chilling message.
"These two elderly men were directly involved in causing an industrial disaster and failing to follow safety regulations as they spent years producing and making a fortune out of deadly fibre cement," he said.
"This is a timely reminder of the effective force of the law in delivering justice to victims ; whether it be through civil proceedings like those which we run on behalf of asbestos victims, or by criminal prosecutions like this one in Italy."
The federal Department of Employment, Education and Workplace Relations and state Minister for Commerce Simon O’Brien have been contacted for comment.
The trial that ’will go down in history’
On Monday Schmidheiny, 64, and De Cartier, 89, were found guilty of failing to comply with safety regulations at four Eternit facilities in Italy and causing an environmental disaster that killed more than people through asbestos-related illness.
About 6,000 people, including former employees and local Turin residents, were seeking damages.
Their alleged crimes carry a maximum 12-year sentence, but prosecutors are seeking a harsher punishment because they say the fall-out continues to affect victims.
"I have never seen such a tragedy. It affects workers and inhabitants ... it continues to cause deaths and will continue to do so for who knows how long," prosecutor Raffaele Guariniello told the court in his closing speech.
Defence lawyers denied the accused had direct responsibility for the Italian company, and the pair have been absent from court throughout.
Negotiations between Schmidheiny and local authorities in Casale Monferrato for an out-of-court settlement fell through this month. The billionaire had offered the town 18 million euros ($A22.33 million) to drop the case.
Eternit went bankrupt in 1986, six years before asbestos was banned in Italy in 1992.
Asbestos, which was banned in Europe in 2005, but is still widely used in the developing world, had been used mainly as building insulation for its sound absorption and resistance to fire, heat and electrical damage.
The inhalation of asbestos fibres can cause lung inflammation and cancer, and symptoms can take up to 20 years to manifest after exposure.
In France, the first complaints by workers exposed to asbestos date back to 1996 but there have been no major trials even though health authorities blame asbestos for between 10 and 20 per cent of lung cancers.
In Switzerland, three suits filed against Eternit’s former owners -Thomas and Stephan Schmidheiny - expired under a statute of limitations in 2008.
In Belgium, a civil case in November awarded compensation of 250,000 euros to a family of asbestos victims.
The court in Brussels found Eternit responsible for the death in 2000 of the wife of a factory engineer who died 13 years earlier because of asbestos and of two of their five sons who died for the same reason.
"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 an Italian Eternit factory.