A wiretap has brought a new twist to the trial in L’Aquila, Italy, of six Italian scientists and one government official accused of manslaughter for having reassured the population before the deadly earthquake of 6 April, 2009 (see ‘Scientists face trial over earthquake deaths’ and ‘Scientists on trial: At fault?’).
All those indicted took part in a meeting held in L’Aquila on 30 March, 2009, during which they were asked to assess the risk of a major earthquake in view of many shocks that had hit the city in the previous months. Most of the trial revolves around a statement made to the press by the deputy head of the Italian Civil Protection Bernardo De Bernardinis, who is among the indicted: “The scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy.”
According to the Public Prosecutor of L’Aquila, that statement made some citizens who were about to flee their homes decide to stay instead, and thus indirectly caused their death. But those words have been judged scientifically incorrect by most seismology experts, including some of the accused scientists, who deny having said anything like that at the meeting. So a key question in the investigation was where those words came from.
On 20 January the Italian newspaper La Repubblica revealed a taped telephone conversation between Guido Bertolaso, then head of the Civil Protection, and Daniela Stati, an officer of the L’Aquila Provincial Administration, recorded the day before the meeting. Bertolaso can be heard saying, of the seismologists now on trial: “I will send them there mostly as a media move. They are the best experts in Italy, and they will say that it is better to have a hundred shocks at 4 Richter than silence, because a hundred shocks release energy, so that there will never be the big one.”
The wiretap was part of a separate investigation (on the organization of the G8 meeting in L’Aquila in 2009, also coordinated by Bertolaso) and had hitherto gone unnoticed because it was not relevant to that case. As a result, the Public Prosecutor of L’Aquila announced on 24 January that Bertolaso is now also under investigation for manslaughter. According to media reports, the prosecutors are considering asking for a parallel trial for him.
By showing that the Civil Protection had already decided what to say before the meeting, the revelation may help the defence of the six indicted scientists. In particular Enzo Boschi, then president of the Italian Institute for Geophysics and Vulcanology, has always contended that the scientists did not have a chance to make a serious risk assessment during the meeting, and that reassuring the population had been solely the Civil Protection’s decision.
Bertolaso was scheduled to appear as a witness in the trial on 8 February. By that day, he may have to appear as a defendant.
Image courtesy of wolfango via Flickr under Creative Commons.