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Italian Asbestos Victims Ask Yale to Revoke Convicted Eternit CEO’s Honorary Degree

Casale MonferratoMention the Piedmont region of Italy and most people think of a glamorous vacation destination with picturesque villages and castles framed by the Alps.  But behind the tourist façade, it is an asbestos-infested valley of the shadow of death.

More than 2,000 people have died from mesothelioma just in Casale Monferrato, a town that has been around since the days of the ancient Roman Empire. By the dawn of the 20th century, it became known as a cement producing capital because of a factory built there in 1906 by Eternit, a company based in neighboring Switzerland.  Founded in 1903, Eternit produced asbestos-containing cement until 1997.

Headed by the Schmidheiny family since 1933, the company flourished during the post World War II rebuilding boom throughout Europe.  Besides Italy, Eternit also had factories in the Netherlands, France and Brazil. But amid a growing scandal about asbestos, Eternit’s four Italian factories closed in 1986 and the company was sold to an Austrian bank in 2003.

In 2009, following five years of investigation, billionaire former CEO Stephan Schmidheiny , 65, and major shareholder Louis de Cartier Marchienne were accused of criminal neglect . Both men were found guilty in February 2013 and sentenced to 16 years in prison.  You can learn more about this important asbestos trial in a free ebook  co-edited by my sister Laurie-Kazan Allen and her husband David Allen, asbestos victim advocates in their own right.

Marchienne died at age 91 on May 21, 2013 during the appeal of his sentence. Charges against him were dropped in June. But Schmidheiny’s sentence was increased to 18 years. He is appealing the case to Italy’s highest court.

Now, a group of mesothelioma sufferers and their families in Italy are seeking to have Yale University, an elite American college in New Haven, Connecticut, take back an honorary degree it presented to Schmidheiny in 1996.  A New Haven attorney representing the Italian group sent a petition to Yale officials this week.  Yale has never revoked an honorary degree and has expressed support for Schmidheiny .   Ironically, Schmidheiny’s Yale honors were conferred on him for his environmental activities, which cynically could be seen as an attempt to distance himself from the environmental and human disasters his company created.

Casale Monferrato Council Signs ‘Pact with the Devil’ Over Asbestos Contamination

It’s a good thing the mayor and town council of Casale Monferrato, Italy, weren’t presiding over the Nuremberg Trials following World War II, as it’s now clear that these individuals care little about serving justice to the parties responsible for severe crimes.

Reports indicate the town council, led by Mayor Giorgio Demezzi, has decided to accept a deal referred to by many as a “pact with the devil.” The deal involves an 18 million euro settlement offer from former asbestos executive Stephen Schmidheiny, who is on trial for his role in the asbestos contamination caused by the Eternit factory.

According to Laurie Kazan-Allen, the Coordinator of International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS), the council’s decision to accept the settlement was made more than two weeks before Schmidheiny’s deadline of December 31. A verdict in the case was scheduled to be handed down on February 13, 2012.

Church authorities back asbestos victims

The news of the settlement, which will reportedly protect Schmidheiny from liability in this case and any future asbestos transgressions in the town, has hit asbestos victims and their families hard.

A number of groups, from trade unionists to church officials, have expressed their support for these victims and publicly denounced the decision by the town council allowing Schmidheiny to skirt the ramifications of the legal system.

Kazan-Allen noted a spokesperson for the social department of the Church Dioceses said church authorities had “asked the Lord to give those who govern the City of Casale the courage and the judgement to pursue the common good, which is never the sum total of individual good or balancing the books, but something greater and more noble.”

Politicians choose euros over justice

The speed with which the Casale Monferrato town council and mayor accepted the settlement, coupled with the fact that they reportedly refused to show victims a draft of the proposal, suggests these politicians were blinded by the substantial sum of money.

Such a move comes at the expense of asbestos victims, many of whom have died as a result of illnesses such as lung cancer, asbestosis or malignant mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer. Many others are still suffering from the diseases, with treatment options limited due to the fact that diagnoses often occur too late.

As Kazan-Allen puts it, Casale Monferrato has accepted Schmidheiny’s “blood money,” failing to see the “human tragedy” that has occurred right in front of their eyes.

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