updated 7/22/2009 3:59:55 PM ET 2009-07-22T19:59:55

An Italian judge on Wednesday ordered a Belgian man and a Swiss man to stand trial for alleged negligence leading to hundreds of deaths linked to asbestos plants.

Prosecutors say Stephan Schmidheiny of Switzerland and Jean-Louis de Cartier of Belgium were key shareholders in Eternit, a Swiss construction company. They allege the two were ultimately responsible for the death of some 2,000 workers and residents from asbestos-related diseases.

Most of the cases occurred around an Eternit plant in Casale Monferrato, a town near Turin.

Lawyers and prosecutors said the two are charged with causing an environmental disaster and failing to take proper precautions. Their trial is set to begin Dec. 10 in Turin.

The two men, who deny wrongdoing, could face up to 12 years in prison if convicted.

Italian operation closed in 1986
Eternit closed its Italian operation in 1986, but people continue to become sick as a result of the contamination, prosecutor Raffaele Guariniello said.

He alleged that Eternit spread asbestos fibers over wide areas by allowing powder left over from the production of roof coverings and pipes to spread in the air. They also sold asbestos locally for the construction of roads and houses, Guariniello told The Associated Press.

The company worked to hide the danger from the public, downplaying and limiting information on the well-established link between asbestos and sickness when dealing with unions and the media, he said.

Schmidheiny and de Cartier do not deny that the deaths were caused by asbestos, but claim they did everything they could to limit the risks and inform the public, said Astolfo Di Amato, a lawyer for the Swiss businessman.

Di Amato noted asbestos was mined and used in Casale and other areas since the start of the 20th century and said "it's unthinkable that our client should be found responsible for the mistakes of others."

He said they had not yet decided if Schmidheiny, who lives in Switzerland, would take the stand in the trial. Suspects are not obliged to attend their trials in Italy.

A lawyer for de Cartier did not return calls Wednesday.

Schmidheiny's spokesman, Peter Schuermann, said in an e-mail that Schmidheiny "was never the owner of the Italian factory, but the biggest shareholder of the Swiss Eternit Group for just a few years. Before, Italian owners steered the company and afterward Belgians."

Contamination described as 'ecological bomb'
Prosecutors have submitted documents showing managers at the Italian company received orders from the Swiss and Belgian owners, Guariniello said.

He said the company had also done nothing to help the contaminated areas, leaving authorities in Casale and other towns saddled with the huge costs of the still ongoing cleanup operation.

"Just a few days ago we took pictures of roads covered in asbestos powder," he said. "They placed an ecological bomb and have done nothing to defuse it."

In addition to the dead, some 800 residents and former workers are still suffering from illnesses including asbestosis and mesothelioma, a cancer of the lung lining, said Bruno Pesce, the head of a victims association. Up to 50 new cases are diagnosed each year in Casale alone.

Some 3,000 victims and family members have joined in a civil lawsuit attached to the criminal proceedings in Turin. Many were in the courtroom Wednesday and cried and applauded after the ruling, Pesce said.

The plaintiffs had not yet decided how much to ask in damages, Pesce said, stressing that the important thing was to try those allegedly responsible.

"It's an historic moment," he said. "We hope that this trial will repay part of the debt that Eternit owes the families of the victims."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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