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Italian scientists convicted for failing to warn of L'Aquila earthquake

Seven Italian geologist, scientists and public officials have yesterday been convicted of manslaughter for failing to provide adequate warning before a devastating earthquake killing 299 in the town of L’Aquila.

The scientists are facing up to six years in jail for failing to take adequate precautions before the magnitude 6.2 quake in 6 April 2009. The quake struck the small town of L’Aquila, 95km north east of Rome, killing 299, injuring over 1,500 and displacing 17,000.

L’Aquila’s prosecutor’s office said the quake should have been predicted by Italy’s Commissione Grande Rischi (Commission of Big Risks). The commission is made up of scientists and experts who advise Italy’s civil protection department on seismology decisions.

It convicted four members of the commission, including Instituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia (INGV) president Enzo Boschi and Italian National Earthquake Centre director Guilo Selvaggi. INGV is the Italian equivalent of the British Geological Survey. The three others convicted are members of the civil protection department.

INGV expressed its “deep concern” about the verdict.

“It is important to stress that this sentence sets a precedent that could affect dramatically the relationship between scientists and decision makers, not only in our country but also worldwide,” said INGV in a statement.

INGV said the conviction will prevent scientists taking in part  in public debate for fear of being convicted.

“Which scientist will express their opinion being consciously aware he or she could go to jail for doing so,” added INGV.

Readers' comments (5)

  • The seismologists were charged not with failing to predict the earthquake but for wrongly reassuring the public about the risk. Witnesses told the court that family members had died because after the reassurances they stopped leaving their houses when they noticed tremors.

    In other words, the scientists were not accused of poor performance as oracles, sorcerers or palm readers by providing inaccurate predictions about future events. (Everybody knows the limitations of earthquake predictions.)

    On the contrary, they were charged because they acted as oracles, sorcerers and palm readers and not scientists. The fact is that they said something they should never have said.

    They, the head of the Great Risks Commission, in a public interview, told the people of L'Aquila, who were camping out on the streets because of the tremors, that it was safe to go home and sleep in their houses. And that is when the earthquake hit.

    The scientists should have stuck to science and not give assurances about things they did not have scientific evidence for. But in their arrogance, they pretended to know, and acted like palm readers.

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  • Could this have happened to Michael Fish after the great storm of 1987???

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  • P. Anthony above is correct, NCE's coverage on this topic has consistently been misleading by continuing to suggest that the scientists were on trial for failing to predict the earthquake. This is not the case and the prosecutor has been quite clear about this. A bit more effort required on research I suggest.

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  • Very interesting comments by readers - perhaps the NCE would like to respond? We all expect the content of the NCE to be factually correct and if it is not so then we should be made aware of this.

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  • I'm afraid these days the NCE is only too happy to hang on to the coat-tails of general press releases.

    Will we get any independant journalism from the NCE on this subject? I don't know, but how about it Mr Oliver, will there be anything more investigative than your Editor's Opinion?

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  • Thank you all for your feedback; we do strive for accuracy in all our reporting and your feedback is useful. A fuller report of the court case will be in NCE next week and I ecnourage anyone who has knowledge of this case to contribute to our research. Do get in touch via all availabe channels. Thanks.

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