Reuters International

MILAN (Reuters) - An Italian court sentenced one of the country's best-known businessmen, Carlo De Benedetti, and a former industry minister to jail on Monday in a long-running case over the asbestos-related deaths of former workers of electronics group Olivetti.

De Benedetti, 81, who served as chief executive and chairman of Olivetti for almost 20 years from the late 1970s, said he was astonished and disheartened by the sentence and would appeal.

The case related to the illness and death of 14 workers at the Olivetti plant in the northern Italian town of Ivrea, close to Turin, who had worked in areas allegedly contaminated by asbestos fibres.

They were employed between the 1960s and 1990s and fell sick after leaving the company, diagnosed with mesothelioma, a type of cancer associated with exposure to asbestos.

A judge in Ivrea sentenced De Benedetti to five years and two months in prison and former industry minister Corrado Passera to a year and 11 months in jail on charges of complicity in manslaughter, along with 11 other former managers found guilty of either manslaughter or injuries.

Passera, industry minister from late 2011 to 2013, was co-CEO of Olivetti between September 1992 and July 1996.

Piaggio Chairman and Chief Executive Roberto Colaninno, who was also on trial, was acquitted. The case started in 2005.

De Benedetti, announcing his intention to appeal, said in a statement he had been found guilty of crimes he did not commit. "Olivetti always placed a high priority on health and safety in the workplace," he said.

Passera and Colaninno were not immediately available to comment.

Italian law allows for two levels of appeal and prison sentences are served only when all appeals are exhausted.

De Benedetti is one of Italy's most famous and powerful business executives and is best known for turning Olivetti, a maker of typewriters, calculators and computers founded in 1908, into a major European electronics group in the 1980s before its later decline.

Olivetti, which at its peak employed 50,000 people, is nowadays a small office machinery company, part of the Telecom Italia group.

The founder of family holding company CIR and chairman of national publisher Espresso, De Benedetti won a legal battle in 2015 with long-time business rival Silvio Berlusconi over the sale of publisher Mondadori, now part of the former prime minister's business empire.

(Reporting by Giulia Segreti; editing by Adrian Croft)

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