Six Italian scientists and a government official have been found guilty of multiple manslaughter for underestimating the risks of a deadly earthquake in the town of L’Aquila in 2009 that left 309 people dead.
Judge Marco Billi on Monday sentenced all seven members of Italy’s Major Risks Committee to six years in prison for failing to warn the population of the risks just days before L’Aquila and surrounding towns were hit by the earthquake.
The members were also ordered to pay court costs and damages.
Among those convicted were some of Italy’s most prominent and internationally respected seismologists and geological experts, including Enzo Boschi, former head of the national Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology.
“I am dejected, desperate,” Boschi said after the verdict. “I thought I would have been acquitted. I still don’t understand what I was convicted of.”
Some commentators had warned that any convictions would dissuade other experts from sharing their expertise for fear of legal retribution.
Al Jazeera’s Claudio Lavanga, reporting from L’Aquila in Italy’s central Abruzzo region, said the unprecedented verdict came as a surprise.
“Especially since the prosecutor was asking for four year prison sentences. The judge deemed them responsible enough to get six years in prison.”
The victims’ families said outside the court that they were happy with the verdict.
“They are all saying the same thing,” Lavanga said. “Had the scientists not reassured them that an earthquake was very unlikely to come – only six days before a big earthquake came – maybe they would have decided to sleep outside,” he said, adding that the scientists will appeal the verdict.
Failure to alert
Prosecutors have argued 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 Lavanga.
“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”.
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.