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An Italian court Monday convicted two men of negligence in some 2,000 asbestos-related deaths blamed on contamination from a construction company, sentencing each of them to 16 years in prison and ordering them to pay millions in what officials called a historic case.

Italian Health Minister Renato Balduzzi hailed the verdict by the three-judge Turin court as "without exaggeration, truly historic," noting that it came after a long battle for justice.

"It's a great day, but that doesn't mean the battle against asbestos is over," he told Sky TG24 TV, stressing that it is a worldwide problem.

Prosecutors said Jean-Louise de Cartier of Belgium and Stephan Schmidheiny of Switzerland, both key shareholders in the Swiss construction firm Eternit, failed to stop asbestos fibers left over from production of roof coverings and pipes at its northern Italian factories from spreading across the region.

During the trial, which has stretched on since December 2009, some 2,100 deaths or illnesses were blamed on the asbestos fibers, which can cause grave lung problems, including cancer. Prosecutors said the contamination stretched over decades.

The defendants had denied wrongdoing.

Hundreds of people, many of them who had lost parents or spouses to asbestos-linked diseases, crowded the courtroom and two nearby halls to gather for the verdict. When the convictions were announced, some of the spectators wept.

Two hours after announcing the convictions, Judge Giuseppe Casalbore was still reading the court's complete verdict, which included awards of monetary damages from civil lawsuits from some 6,300 victims or their relatives who alleged that loved ones either died or were left ill from asbestos.

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