Story highlights

Stephan Schmidheiny will appeal his sentence in an Italian court, his lawyer says

Schmidheiny and a Belgian colleague are accused of failing to protect workers from asbestos

Schmidheiny's lawyer says the sentence will deter other big firms from investing in Italy

Exposure to asbestos can lead to lung diseases and cancer

Rome CNN  — 

A Swiss man sentenced in an Italian court to a 16-year prison term in absentia over deaths of about 2,000 workers who prosecutors said were exposed to asbestos will appeal the ruling, his lawyer said Tuesday.

Stephan Schmidheiny, the Swiss owner of the fiber-cement firm Eternit, was sentenced Monday alongside Belgian former executive and investor Jean Louis Marie Ghislain de Cartier de Marchienne.

The pair were accused of failing to protect workers in the company’s four Italian factories before they were shuttered in 1986.

Schmidheiny’s lawyer, Astolfo Di Amato, told CNN Tuesday that his client did not accept the sentence handed down by the court in Turin, an industrial hub in northwestern Italy.

“The sentence is certainly a setback, we lost the first battle. (It’s) a defeat that we don’t accept and we will present an appeal,” the lawyer said.

He said Schmidheiny had invested large sums in the 1970s in restructuring the plants’ production process and had never set foot in Italy.

“The sentence is dangerous because if in Italy we affirm the principle that the major shareholder of a multinational company is responsible for what happens in each peripheral plant, no one will invest in Italy any longer,” he said.

Schmidheiny and De Cartier were also ordered to pay a total of €80 million ($105 million) to more than 6,000 people, including former workers and residents who lived near their plants.

Bruno Pesce, the leader of Italy’s asbestos victims association, said more than 1,500 people attended Monday’s hearing – including some who were suffering from asbestos-linked illnesses.

“It was a very emotional moment,” Pesce said. “People were crying because of tension and then of happiness.”

Renato Balduzzi, Italy’s health minister, called the sentence “historic.”

The Italian Eternit company was declared bankrupt in 1986, when the Italian plants were shut down, and the company’s ownership changed in the 1990s.

A spokesman for the Swiss Eternit company, Balts Livio, said it was independent from the Italian firm of the same name.

“Neither Eternit (Schweiz) AG nor its owner had or have any relationship with Eternit S.p.A., Genoa, and thus with the subject of the criminal proceedings in Turin,” Livio said.

Asbestos was once widely used as a fireproofing material and was included in roof shingles and siding for decades. Though now banned in Italy and most Western countries, asbestos is still used in developing countries, mainly in China and India.

Exposure to its tiny fibers, particularly over a period of time, can lead to asbestos-related diseases that include lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma, according to the National Institutes for Health.