A team of six scientists and a government official in Italy are facing the potential of spending the next four years in prison.
The seismologists have been charged with manslaughter for underestimating risks prior to the 2009 earthquake, which killed 309 people in the medieval town of L’Aquila. They will learn their fates when verdicts are handed down by a court on Monday.
The case has provoked outrage in the international scientific community, with some commentators warning that any conviction would dissuade other experts from sharing their expertise for fear of potential legal actions.
Failure to alert
|Claudio Lavanga reports from L’Aquila|
Prosecutors argue that the seven – all members of the Major Risks Committee – failed to adequately alert the town’s population after studying a series of small tremors in the weeks before the 6.3-magnitude quake struck.
The experts provided “an incomplete, inept, unsuitable and criminally mistaken” analysis, downplaying risks and reassuring residents, leaving them unprepared for the quake, said prosecutors during the year-long trial.
The committee met six days before the earthquake devastated the region, tearing down houses and churches and leaving thousands homeless.
“This seems to be a case of bad timing rather than bad science,” said Al Jazeera’s Claudio Lavanga, reporting from L’Aquila in Italy’s central Abruzzo region.
“Clearly, [the scientists] said, ‘look, we cannot predict an earthquake. We can say that the likelihood that these small tremors will lead to a major earthquake is not that great’. One of them even got carried away and said that the small tremors were a good thing, because they would dissipate the energy and make it unlikely for a major earthquake to come.”
The then vice-director of Italy’s Civil Protection department, Bernardo De Bernardinis, told reporters the seismic activity in L’Aquila posed “no danger” and advised residents to relax with a glass of wine.
But government lawyer Carlo Sica has called for the seven defendants to be acquitted.
Minutes from the March 31 meeting were not valid as evidence because they were only written and signed following the April 6 earthquake, he argued.
“They are not guilty of anything, the earthquake’s no-one’s fault,” he said.
Last week Filippo Dinacci, lawyer for De Bernardinis and one of the other defendants, denounced the charges as something out of “medieval criminal law”.
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The case sparked outrage when the charges were brought against the geophysicists in 2010. Many commentators complained that the scientists were merely scapegoats and that science itself was being put on trial.
“Scientists we have spoken to have described this trial as something of a ‘witch hunt’,” said our correspondent. “They understand the need for relatives [of those killed] to find someone responsible, but say that they should turn their attention to those who failed to meet the building regulations in a highly seismic area.”
More than 5,000 members of the scientific community sent an open letter to Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano denouncing the trial. Their colleagues were being prosecuted for having failed to predict an earthquake: but that was a feat widely acknowledged to be impossible, they argued.
Prosecutor Fabio Picuti, however, insists the point is not whether they could have predicted the quake. He says the government-appointed experts’ job was to evaluate the risk and advise a large population in a town with fragile, ancient buildings.
The seven defendants include Enzo Boschi, who at the time was the head of Italy’s national geophysics institute; Giulio Selvaggio, head of the INVV’s national earthquake centre in Rome; and Franco Barberi of Rome’s University
The other scientists on trial are Mauro Dolce, head of the Civil Protection’s seismic risk office, Gian Michele Calvi, head of the European Centre for Training and Research in Earthquake Engineering (EUcentre); and Claudio Eva of the University of Genoa.
As well as being charged with manslaughter, the seven also face charges of reckless endangerment.