The medical files of thousands of Italians who worked for the Swiss company Eternit might be given to Italian authorities investigating asbestos-related deaths.
Suva, the Swiss national accident insurer, which handles medical claims, had been fighting against releasing its files but the justice ministry has ruled against it.
The records will now first pass to justice authorities in canton Glarus where the former Eternit company had its registered office. They will then decide if the documents will be handed over to Italy.
The dossiers were demanded last year by the public prosecutor’s office in Turin, which opened an investigation after Italian asbestos victims had initiated legal proceedings.
Suva opposed judiciary cooperation with Italy on a number of grounds but the justice ministry’s ruling of June 17 will now force it to hand over the documents.
"This may take some time because thousands of files dating back to 1950 have to processed," said Manfred Brünnler, a Suva spokesman.
He confirmed that the insurer had already made contact with the Glarus justice authorities.
The latest episode in the saga of asbestos cement produced by Eternit began last August when the Turin prosecutor Raffaele Guariniello presented another request for judicial aid. He is leading an investigation into Italian asbestos victims.
Guariniello asked for thousands of records of workers at the Eternit factories in Niederurnen, canton Glarus, and Payerne, canton Vaud, from 1950-1993.
In its appeal to the justice ministry to block the aid, Suva commented that it was unacceptable for a foreign judge to examine the work of a federal authority.
Suva also raised the issue of data protection and argued that the Italian prosecutor had already obtained documents from Switzerland in September 2003.
And it pointed out that it would probably cost several million francs to search for the files, a cost that those insured would have to bear.
Italian asbestos victims have handed in more than 2,000 claims for damages to Turin judicial authorities. The complaints are aimed mainly at Swiss industrialists Stephan and Thomas Schmidheiny who were the former owners of the Eternit group.
According to the accusation, the company knew about the harmfulness of asbestos.
The former Eternit workers - or relatives of those who have died - say the Swiss group is responsible for their cancer or respiratory problems.
swissinfo with agencies
The Turin prosecutor is considering laying charges of involuntary manslaughter for the deaths of 22 Italian workers employed by Eternit in Switzerland between 1960 and 1970.
The 22 employees died of mesothelioma - a tumour affecting the lining of the chest or abdomen - when they returned home to Italy.
Eternit has always claimed it did everything to protect its workers given scientific knowledge at the time.
The company stopped working with asbestos in 1994.