"Mr. Schmidheiny is a model and a reference for thousands of leaders in the sustainability movement worldwide. He has created a number of organizations that promote sustainability in Latin America and globally," said Sean McKaughan, the Avina president.
Schmidheiny was so prominent in corporate life in his home country — at Nestlé, Swatch and ABB, among others — that he's been called the Bill Gates of Switzerland. An art collector, he also was on the chairman's board of advisers at the Museum of Modern Art in New York for several years.
And the biography on his website doesn't ignore the asbestos plants; on the contrary, it says the young Schmidheiny "immediately began to drive forward the exit from asbestos processing, which was considered to be a worldwide pioneering achievement."
That's not how they see it in Casale, in the famously scenic Piedmont region — on the Po River near the foothills of the Alps — which went on to become one of the world's tragic centers of asbestos poisoning.
Casale and the other cities and towns are not only grieving over 3,000 people who have died, according to experts who testified in the trial, of mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. They are also facing new cases, new deaths, at a rate of 50 a year in Casale alone, which has a population of about 100,000.
And the deaths are not expected to abate for years to come, as asbestos-caused cancers can take decades after exposure to emerge.
It is almost entirely traceable to the industrial plants, according to Italian epidemiologist Benedetto Terracini, who studied the effects and testified on behalf of the accusers in the trial. "The incidence rate is approximately 50 times higher than the average Italian figure," Terracini said in an email.
One reason: Asbestos contamination was not limited to the Eternit factory.
"Leftovers of the process of producing asbestos cement were generously given by the factory to residents in order to insulate their houses," Terracini said.
The company "even threw some in the river and it made white beaches for the children," said Victoria Franzinetti, a translator for the Turin court who is now working with the victims' and families' group as a volunteer. "Some of these children are now adults and they're starting to die."
The question in the case, and in the view of Yale or anyone else looking back, is not only what happened but who had what responsibility and when they had it. To Schmidheiny's accusers, he's guilty because he controlled the Swiss company that controlled the Italian company that spread asbestos after it was known that the material caused cancer.
And worst of all, the accusers say, Schmidheiny's company never issued any warnings.
The face of the suffering belongs to Romana Blasotti as much as anyone. She lost her husband, daughter, sister, grandson and cousin to mesothelioma, and is now president of the victims' and families' group AFEVA. In a recorded statement to The Courant translated by Franzinetti, Blasotti said she would like to meet Schmidheiny in person, to make him realize "how much pain he has caused."
"I'm very bitter in thinking how much time has passed since we started to fight the consequences of asbestos and how much pain we have experienced. … He didn't even have the courage to stand up in front of us in court. It is really shameful to try and paint with white your image … as a philanthropist," she said, using an Italian idiom meaning to whitewash one's past.
"When they gave him an honorary degree, the university cannot have known what he had done, but he knew."
As Schmidheiny's defense team and his supporters tell it, the court unfairly boils generations of tragedy down to the actions of two men — Schmidheiny and a co-defendant who died this year before the appeal verdict — who didn't have direct management control over the factories, and whose role lasted just a few years in the history of an asbestos business that started in 1907.
Even if Schmidheiny had controlled the Italian factories, they argue, the epidemiology studies didn't establish that the deaths happened as a result of exposure after 1976, when he took over Eternit — only that they were caused by asbestos at some point.
In a jointly issued statement, Schmidheiny's lawyer in Rome, Astolfo Di Amato, and his spokesman in Switzerland, Peter Schürmann, called the verdict "absurd" and "a travesty."
"The appellate proceedings in Turin must also be described as a politically motivated, unfair trial with massive prejudgment in the media," the statement said. "In an unprecedented campaign that lasted for years, the prosecution, organized victims' representatives, union representatives, and local media reduced the responsibility for the asbestos tragedy to Stephan Schmidheiny and the recently deceased co-defendant, Louis de Cartier, and considered their guilt as proven right from the beginning."