An Italian court has handed two company executives 16-year jail terms for the asbestos-related deaths of more than 3000 people.

Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny, 64, and Baron Louis de Cartier de Marchienne, 90, the former heads of the Eternit cement company, were found guilty of failing to ensure adequate safety measures at two asbestos-cement plants active in Italy until the 1980s.

Prosecutors in Turin said the deaths occurred from asbestos-linked tumours among Eternit staff, their families and people living near the factories.

Many hundreds more are ill with terminal mesothelioma cancer caused by the substance.

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Health Minister Renato Balduzzi said after the verdicts: "It's a sentence that you can call truly historic for its social aspects and for its technical and legal ones."

Defence lawyers denied the accused had direct responsibility for the Italian company, and the pair have been absent from court throughout.

Some relatives of victims burst into tears in court when the sentence was read for the world's largest-ever trial into asbestos-related deaths and illnesses.

- Independent