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L’AQUILA, Italy: Six Italian scientists and a government official were found guilty yesterday of multiple manslaughter for underestimating the risks of a killer earthquake in the town of L’Aquila in 2009.
They were sentenced to six years in jail in the watershed ruling in a case that has provoked outrage in the international science community.
Some commentators had warned that any convictions would dissuade other experts from sharing their expertise for fear of legal retribution.
Prosecutor Fabio Picuti had asked for jail sentences of four years for each defendant for failing to alert the population of the walled medieval town of L’Aquila to the risks, days before the 6.3-magnitude quake killed 309 people.
All seven were members of the Major Risks Committee which met in the central Italian town on March 31, 2009 — six days before the quake devastated the region, tearing down houses and churches and leaving thousands homeless.
Picuti yesterday compared the committee to the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which was castigated for failing to assess the risks before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005.
FEMA head Michael Brown resigned in the wake of the disaster, and Picuti blamed a similar “failure of initiative” to forecast the risks for L’Aquila.
But Alfredo Biondi, the lawyer for expert Claudio Eva, had rejected his claim, saying: “While floods and hurricanes can be forecast, earthquakes cannot.”
The bright blue, classroom-sized temporary tribunal in L’Aquila — built on an industrial estate after the town’s historic court was flattened in the quake — was crowded with dozens of lawyers, advisers and international media for the verdict.
Four of the defendants were in court, as well as a small group of survivors.
“They were not expected to predict the earthquake but they were expected to alert people to the risks,” said lawyer Wania dell Vigna, who represents 11 plaintiffs, including an Israeli student who died when a student residence collapsed.
Aldo Scimia, whose mother was killed, said: “Their main duty is to provide security, and they failed.”
Another relative of one of the victims who gave her name only as Ortense said her sister had died because “she was reassured by the experts and slept at home that night.”
In his summing up, Picuti said the experts had provided “an incomplete, inept, unsuitable and criminally mistaken” analysis, which reassured locals and led many to stay indoors when the first tremors hit.
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 vice-director of the Civil Protection agency, Bernardo De Bernardinis, gave press interviews saying the seismic activity in L’Aquila posed “no danger.”
“The scientific community continues to assure me that, to the contrary, it’s a favourable situation because of the continuous discharge of energy,” he said.
The claim that shocks discharge energy and reduce quake risks has been disputed and the scientists deny having told Bernardinis anything of the sort.
The prosecution had accused Bernardinis of using the meeting to calm the residents — he famously advised them to relax.