Inside Story
Putting science on trial
As experts are jailed over the L'Aquila earthquake, we ask if people can be held responsible for natural disasters.
Last Modified: 23 Oct 2012 13:41

Italian prosecutors have secured a manslaughter conviction against seven experts for underestimating the risks of an earthquake that killed more than 300 people in Italy in 2009.

"Scientists have just to comment on data, on theories. They can just report what is expected according to theory .... It is always very difficult to balance between underestimating and overemphasising an event that cannot be predicted."

- Valerio Rossi Albertini, a physicist

On Monday, the six scientists and a government official were sentenced to six years in prison.

They have endured a year of 30 court hearings on charges of manslaughter - raising concern among seismologists.

They were accused of failing to sufficiently warn the population of the medieval town of L'Aquila before the earthquake struck.

The magnitude 6.3 quake killed 309 people and affected 120,000.

The prosecution said the defendants gave vague and contradictory information, and provided an incomplete, inept, unsuitable and criminally mistaken analysis of a powerful quake in the country.

Scientists from around the world have called the trial a witch-hunt, and said that the defendants, who were members of Italy's Major Risks Committee, are being used as scapegoats for the disaster.

"Some countries would just hold an inquiry into what went wrong. Clearly something apparently went wrong [in Italy]… [But] it is a very tricky situation and how to handle it in different parts of the world is going to depend on the legal system and the culture in different countries."

- David Rothery, a volcanologist and planetary scientist

Defence lawyers described the charges as 'medieval', arguing that earthquakes are impossible to predict, and that holding scientists to account will dissuade them from sharing their expertise in the future.

In this episode of Inside Story we ask: Should science be put on trial? And can people be held responsible for natural disasters?

Joining the discussion with presenter Teymoor Nabili are guests: Valerio Rossi Albertini, a physicist and a professor at the University of Rome, where one of the scientists is from; Kristian Cedervall Lauta, an expert on disaster law and a member of the Copenhagen Centre for Disaster Research; and David Rothery, a senior lecturer on earth sciences at the Open University and the author of several books on volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis.

"We see the same thing in Japan where a number of people are raising cases in court. There is an increased need for legal instruments to discuss justice in connection with disasters. I think this case serves as a perfect example of this development."

Kristian Cedervall Lauta, a disaster law expert

Al Jazeera's Tarek Bazley tries to find out if there is any way to predict natural disasters such as an earthquake


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