L’Aquila earthquake scientists sentenced to six years in jail
Six Italian scientists and a government official have been found guilty in a watershed trial of multiple manslaughter for underestimating the risks of the L’Aquila 2009 earthquake.
Nuns walk past the ruins of a building after the earthquake on April 6, 2009 in L’Aquila.
A group of scientists are facing six years in jail for manslaughter for providing â€œan incomplete, inept, unsuitable and criminally mistakenâ€ assessment of risks posed by the devastating Lâ€™Aquila earthquake that killed more than 300 people.
The landmark decision on Monday was welcomed by victims and their families but immediately prompted uproar from the scientific community, which contends that there is no reliable way of predicting earthquakes.
The six scientists and a former government official were all members of the Major Risks Committee which met in the centralÂ ItalianÂ city on March 31, 2009, after several small tremors had been recorded in the region. At the time, they ruled that it was impossible to determine whether the tremors would be followed by a large quake, in a judgment which reassured residents. One of the group famously advised them to relax with a glass of wine. Just six days later, a 6.3 magnitude quake devastated Lâ€™Aquila.
On Monday, Judge Marco Billi announced the manslaughter sentence to a packed courtroom in a temporary building erected to hear the case in the still devastated city. He also ruled that the defendants should pay 7.8 million euros (Â£6.4 millions) in damages, with two million euros to be paid immediately.
The sentencing provoked strong criticism from the scientific community.
Richard Walters of Oxford Universityâ€™s Department of Earth Sciences, said he was â€œsaddenedâ€ about the verdict, warning that it set a â€œdangerous precedentâ€.
â€œThe issue here is about miscommunication of science, and we should not be putting responsible scientists who gave measured, scientifically accurate information in prison. This sets a very dangerous precedent and I fear it will discourage other scientists from offering their advice on natural hazards and trying to help society in this way.â€
Prof Malcolm Sperrin, Director of Medical Physics, Royal Berkshire Hospital, said: â€œIf the scientific community is to be penalised for making predictions that turn out to be incorrect, or for not accurately predicting an event that subsequently occurs, then scientific endeavour will be restricted to certainties only and the benefits that are associated with findings from medicine to physics will be stalled.â€
Prosecutor Fabio Picuti had sought four-year terms for each of the defendants accusing them of failing to alert the population of the historic Medieval town only days before quake struck on April 6. Judge Billiâ€™s reason for the longer sentence imposed will be disclosed at a later date.
In his summing up earlier on Monday, Mr Picuti told the court that the defendants had provided â€œan incomplete, inept, unsuitable and criminally mistakenâ€ analysis which gave the residents of Lâ€™Aquila a false sense of security.
He compared them to the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which came under fire for failing to assess the risks before Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans in 2005.
Speaking after the sentencing, Enzi Boschi, the former president of Italyâ€™s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, who was among the seven found guilty, said he was â€œdisappointed and devastatedâ€.
â€œI thought I would be cleared. I still donâ€™t understand of what I am accused,â€ he said.
Defence lawyers condemned the sentence and pledged to appeal it – under the Italian system, the seven will remain free until they have exhausted two chances to appeal.
Marcello Petrelli who represented Franco Barberi, professor of volcanology and a former deputy Civil Protection minister, said the sentence was â€œincredible and incomprehensibleâ€.
But family members of some of those killed in the earthquake said the victims had won the case with the help of â€œheavenlyâ€ intervention.
â€œBetween the objections and the sentence I went to the cemetery to see my nephew, I felt like saying that the accused had a large stable of lawyers but this time my ‘celestial lawyerâ€™ has won,â€ said Antonietta Centofanti, aunt of Davide who was killed in the university dormitory on the night of the quake.
After the main earthquake struck, Lâ€™Aquila and the surrounding area was shaken by another 250 powerful aftershocks within 48 hours.
The quake caused damage worth an estimated 10 billion euros (Â£8 billion), leaving large areas of the city abandoned even today and the community still devastated by the tragedy.