Italian seismologists ordered to prison for not warning of quake risk

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ROME -- A court found six scientists and an official guilty of manslaughter Monday for failing to properly warn residents in the central Italy city of L’Aquila about the risk of an impending earthquake that killed more than 300 people in 2009.

The three-judge court handed down a prison sentence of six years for each of the defendants, more than the four years requested by the prosecution in a case that many thought should never have gone to court because of the virtual impossibility of predicting an earthquake.

The verdict, which was watched with interest by seismologists and public administrators in other parts of the world marked by frequent seismic activity, including Los Angeles, immediately drew criticism from scientists who said that it would have a chilling effect on experts called on to assess emergencies.

Tremors of varying magnitude had plagued the area around L’Aquila for months before an 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck April 6, 2009, and devastated the city and surrounding villages across a wide area.


Prosecutors said that the men, six members of the Major Risks Commission and an official with the Civil Protection Agency, gave the already-frightened residents “inexact, incomplete and contradictory information” after meeting to evaluate the situation six days before the temblor hit.

They said the commissioners had made superficial analyses and had reassured residents that they were safe in their homes without having the certainty necessary to make such judgments, according to media reports.

Defense attorneys argued that there is no scientific method available that can predict when and where an earthquake will strike. They said they would appeal the verdict after the judges’ panel files a document explaining the motivation of the decision and the prison sentence, which is
required within 90 days.

The seven men do not face immediate imprisonment; under the Italian judicial system, prison sentences are not carried out unless the verdict is confirmed in appeals court.

Enzo Boschi, who at the time headed the National Institute for Geophysics and Vulcanology and was a member of the commission, told Italian media that he was “shocked and desperate” and that “I don’t even understand what I am accused of.”

When charges were filed in 2010, some 5,000 scientists from around the world signed a letter of solidarity with the defendants that was sent to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.

Luciano Maiani, the current president of the Major Risks Commission, told the daily La Repubblica: “This will be the death of the service that professors and professionals have offered to the state. It will not be possible to consult for the state in a serene, professional and disinterested manner with this type of pressure from the judiciary and the media.”


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-- Sarah Delaney