Two former owners of Europe's largest steelworks, the ex-Ilva plant in Italy, were sentenced to more than two decades in prison Monday for toxic emissions blamed for hundreds of deaths.
Prosecutors have previously attributed at least 400 premature deaths to toxins, including carcinogenic particles, that spewed across the southern city of Taranto after years of the plant's non-compliance with environmental controls.
Brothers Fabio and Nicola Riva were sentenced to 20 and 22 years, respectively, by a Taranto court. The former president of Italy's Puglia region where the plant is located, Nichi Vendola, received a three-and-a-half year sentence.
Charges against the Rivas included conspiracy to commit environmental disaster and wilful failure to take precautions in the workplace.
The first-instance ruling is likely to be appealed by the defendants, who are not likely to go to jail until a final guilty verdict is delivered -- something that can take years in Italy.
The Riva family admitted to having saved over 1.3 billion euros ($1.6 billion) between 2009 and 2013 by delaying work to bring the steel plant -- which churned out about a third of the country's total production -- into compliance with safety and environmental norms.
Following the sentencing, a mother of one of the deceased said the ruling was long awaited.
"It is an important day where we finally see someone pay for what they have done, for what has been done to an entire city," the woman, who was unnamed, told the La Repubblica newspaper.
"My son is no longer here, no one can return him to me, but knowing that someone will begin to pay for these deaths, let's say that we feel... less betrayed by the state."
- 'Mortality excess' -
The environmental scandal drove the Italian state to put Ilva, which was heavily indebted and short of cash, under special administration in 2015, then launching an appeal for offers.
ArcelorMittal, the world's largest steel producer, began leasing the plant -- with an obligation to buy it -- in 2018, with plans to invest 2.4 billion euros ($2.67 billion) to revive it, including 1.2 billion euros to curb pollution by 2024.
It later tried to back out of the deal after Italy revoked a period of legal immunity to bring the plant up to environmental standards, but a rescue agreement was subsequently signed with the government.
The deal remains mired in controversy, however, over thousands of job cuts proposed by ArcelorMittal, and a reduction in production.
A first trial over the environmental scandal began in 2015, with more than 47 defendants, including a string of local politicians, and representatives of more than 1,000 civil parties. After it was cancelled a few months later, a second trial began that led to the sentencing on Monday.
Fabio Riva -- whose billionaire father was placed under house arrest in 2012 in connection with the investigation but died in 2014 -- was extradited from Britain for trial in 2015 after being wanted for three years.
Experts found that the chemicals emitted by the Ilva plant were behind high cancer rates and cardiovascular and respiratory diseases among workers and locals, who suffered from a "mortality excess" of between 10 and 15 percent.