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Italian seismologists to be tried for manslaughter

Posted on behalf of Nicola Nosengo

Six Italian seismologists and one government official will be tried for the manslaughter of those who died in an earthquake that struck the city of L’Aquila on 6 April 2009.

The seven are accused of misinforming the population about seismic risk in the days before the earthquakes, indirectly causing the death of the citizens they had reassured.

The case began in June 2010, when the public prosecutor of L’Aquila pressed manslaughter charges against the participants at a meeting of the Major Risks Committee (an expert group that advises the Italian Civil Protection), held on 31 March 2009.

Those indicted include Bernardo De Bernardinis, then vice-president of Italy’s Civil Protection department, who in the meantime has become President of the Institute for Environmental Research and Protection (ISPRA); Enzo Boschi, president of the National Institute for Geophysics and Vulcanology (INGV); Giulio Selvaggi, director of the National Earthquake Center; Franco Barberi, a volcanologist at the University of Rome ‘Roma Tre’; Claudio Eva, a professor of Earth Physics at the University of Genoa; Mauro Dolce, head of the seismic risk office of the Italian government’s Civil Protection Agency; and Gian Michele Calvi, Director of the European Centre for Training and Research in Earthquake Engineering.

At the time of the 31 March 2009 meeting, seismic activity had been going on in the area for more than three months, causing alarm in the population. De Bernardinis summoned the meeting and asked the scientists to assess the risk of a major earthquake and its possible consequences. The meeting was followed by a press conference by De Bernardinis and Barberi, where the two reassured the population that the seismic sequence did not necessarily hint at a major earthquake. De Bernardinis, in particular, appeared on television saying that “the scientific community tells me there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favorable”. A major earthquake did hit on April 6 though, killing 309 people. In the aftermath, many citizens quoted those statements as the reason they did not take precautionary measures, such as fleeing their homes. According to the accusation, many people who would otherwise leave the area decided to stay, and were eventually killed in the collapse of their houses.

After several delays due to procedural reasons, in the last few days the Public Prosecutor of L’Aquila Fabio Picuti and the seven defendants have finally appeared before Giuseppe Gargarella, a Judge at the Court of L’Aquila, who had to decide whether to dismiss the case or to proceed with the trial. After listening to both sides of the story, the judge accepted the prosecutor’s request to proceed with the case and decided that the trial will begin on 20 September.

For a longer news story on the case, see Scientists face trial over earthquake deaths

Comments

  1. Report this comment

    anon said:

    This is disgusting. So now it is a crime for scientists to make a mistake. What happens when the weather man is wrong now? What happens then another mistake is called? Italy’s government and this judge disgust me. You guys should be the ones on trial for putting scientists through this ordeal. I hope the scientists sue the living hell out of the state for this ordeal.

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    ama said:

    A lot of the story is missing here. There was another scientist, Giampaolo Giuliani, telling instead that a big earthquake was approaching.

    People started to complain, and De Bernadinis, likely following Bertolaso and Berlusconi orders, simply picked a bunch of scientist with opposite prediction and told the population that no risk was present.

    The phrase “the scientific community tells me there is no danger” is simply a lie. No scientist would ever said that.

    It would have been a lot different telling that no one could be sure of what would have happened.

    But the political order was to make population calm.

  3. Report this comment

    Matt Horns said:

    The judge is obviously ignorant about seismic risks. When they have their day in court, the seismologists will make the prosecutors look really silly. They will hopefully then file a civil lawsuit and win damages for their mistreatment.

  4. Report this comment

    asd said:

    These are respected scientific professionals being persecuted for political reasons – simply “obeying orders.” Whatever the outcome, it will only manage to subvert scientific disclosure. Anyone who knows anything about eqs and/or risk/probability would know that they were not in the position to advise them that eq threat was imminent. Awful.

  5. Report this comment

    ama said:

    The trial is more about the public declarations of the government official De Bernardinis that told the population that “no risk” was present. It isn’t a trial against the scientist opinions.

    The scientists are involved because De Bernardinis declared that the no risk statement came from them.

    It’s pretty obvious that it isn’t true, but only a trial can legally declared where the true is. So, the trial can only improve the scientists position.

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    mjkbk said:

    I thought the Italian government said back on May 11 (in response to the Bendandi nonsense) that individual EARTHQUAKES CANNOT BE PREDICTED with our current knowledge/technology. Yet they’re still pressing ahead with this ludicrous Aquila prosecution, strictly to sate the public’s demanding appetite for action—ANY action.

  7. Report this comment

    Rik De Busser said:

    That is completely ridiculous! What will be next? Meteorologists being sued for failing to predict rain or snow?

    It is regrettable that there was government pressure or that some scientists seemed to have used wordings that weren’t entirely correct, but that hardly warrants a manslaughter accusation.

    You cannot expect specialists to make completely nuanced statements about anything in popular media. Journalists (and most audiences) tend to like straightforward answers to their questions.

    Maybe the public prosecutor of L’Aquila could prosecute the descendants of Maximus of Aveia. He is the patron saint of the city and he obviously failed miserably in protecting the city.

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    Scott Murray said:

    A far better approach would be to address, update, and enforce building codes. It is well within the capability of sound engineering to save lives while science enhances their understanding of seismic events. The majority if not the totality of the L’Aquila deaths would have been prevented if this straight-forward (albeit expensive) approach would have been used.

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