A Swiss tycoon and an 88-year-old Belgian baron went on trial in Italy on Thursday accused of negligence leading to 3,000 asbestos-related deaths and illnesses.
More than 400 asbestos victims and their families plus 150 lawyers and aides packed a Turin courthouse as proceedings got underway in what Italian newspaper La Repubblica has called the "trial of the century".
Four courtrooms had to be used to accommodate the throng. Swiss Stephan Ernest Schmidheiny, 62, and Belgian baron Jean Louis Marie Ghislain De Cartier De Marchienne are accused of intentionally omitting to put in place measures to prevent asbestos damage at Swiss firm Eternit's Italian plants.
The two defendants - who were not present at the trial - were ordered to stand trial for their role as top executives at Eternit's Italian affiliate Eternit SpA. Their lawyers have said they bear no responsibility in the case.
A statement on behalf of the Belgian defendant said risks related to asbestos were not well known at the time and that he was a member of the company's Eternit Genova unit only for a brief period in the early 1970s.
The victims - who died or fell sick over at least the past four decades - were either Eternit workers or residents of towns where the firm's four plants were based - Casale Monferrato in the Piedmont region, Rubiera in Emilia Romagna and Bagnoli in Campania.
The company closed its Italian operations in 1986.