The head of Italy’s top disaster body has resigned in protest after seven of the organisation’s members were sentenced to six years in jail for manslaughter for underestimating the risks of a deadly 2009 earthquake.
Luciano Maiami told Italy’s ANSA news agency that he had quit as head of the Major Risks Committee because “there aren’t the conditions to work serenely,” a day after the watershed ruling that sent shockwaves through the international scientific community.
The seven defendants are appealing Monday’s ruling by the court in the medieval town of L’Aquila in central Italy, an area devastated by the April 2009 earthquake that killed 309 people.
Maiami, one of Italy’s top physicists and a former head of the top partical physics laboratory Cern in Geneva, criticised the verdict as “a big mistake”.
“These are professionals who spoke in good faith and were by no means motivated by personal interests, they had always said that it is not possible to predict an earthquake,” he told the Corriere della Sera newspaper.
“It is impossible to produce serious, professional and disinterested advice under this mad judicial and media pressure. This sort of thing doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world.
“This is the end of scientists giving consultations to the state.”
All seven defendants were members of the Major Risks Committee which met in L’Aquila on March 31, 2009 – six days before the 6.3-magnitude quake devastated the region that left thousands homeless.
Under the Italian justice system, the seven remain free until they have used two chances to appeal the verdict, but the ruling has sparked outrage among the world’s scientific community which says it has set a dangerous legal precedent.
Maiami said the committee’s deputy head was also set to resign.
Michael Halpern of the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists said that without the right to speak freely and independently, they become vulnerable to scapegoating and persecution.
“Scientists need to be able to share what they know – and admit what they do not know – without the fear of being held criminally responsible should their predictions not hold up,” he said in a blog.
The seven Italians will appeal their sentence in hearings set for the final months of 2013, according to Marcello Melandri, lawyer for Enzo Bosci, who was the head of Italy’s national geophysics institute at the time of the earthquake.
“We will wait to read the grounds for the verdict and then the defence lawyers will work on the appeal, hoping for a better outcome,” he said.
“I am still incredulous, I keep thinking about it and ask myself why,” he said, referring to judge Marco Belli’s decision to give the scientists a harsher sentence than called for by the prosecutor.
The defendants were also ordered to pay more than $12m in damages to survivors.
In L’Aquila and the surrounding towns, where rubble from crumbled houses and churches still lies in vast piles in off-limit zones, survivors and families of those killed said they were shocked by the global reaction.
“There has not been any trial against science,” said Anna Bonomi, spokeswoman for the 3and32 survivors’ group which has campaigned for justice.
“If anything, there has been a trial against a system of power,” she said, referring to the widely-held belief that the government had conjured up a media-friendly reassuring message to calm skittish citizens before the earthquake.
“They may convince Italians [that the trial was unfair] but they will not convince us residents: they played with people’s lives.”
The government committee met after a series of small tremors in the preceding weeks had sown panic among local inhabitants – particularly after a resident began making worrying unofficial earthquake predictions.
Italy’s top seismologists were called in to evaluate the situation and the-then deputy director of the Civil Protection agency Bernardo De Bernardinis gave news interviews saying the seismic activity in L’Aquila posed “no danger”.
He advised local residents to relax with a glass of wine. About 120,000 people were affected by the earthquake, which destroyed the city’s historic centre and medieval churches as well as surrounding villages.