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L’Aquila quake geologists face manslaughter charges

Earthquake engineers this week criticised Italy’s decision to charge seven geologists, scientists and public officials with manslaughter following the L’Aquila earthquake in 2007.

“Unacceptable accusations”

“We believe it is unacceptable to accuse and legally indict scientists and members of a governmental panel because they failed to make a prediction of an extreme natural event in a particular place or because their statements are not considered appropriate,” said European Association for Earthquake Engineering (EAEE) president Mihail Garevski in an open letter to Italian president Giorgio Napolitano.

The quake struck the small town of L’Aquila, 95km north east of Rome, on 6 April 2009 killing 299, injuring over 1,500 and displacing 17,000.

The L’Aquila Prosecutor’s Office has charged the directors of Italy’s Commissione Grande Rischi (Commission for Big Risks) for failing to take adequate precautions before the 6.2 magnitude quake. The seven are accused of reassuring residents about the likelihood of a serious earthquake, although they deny this.

“Reassuring information”

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

“The fact is that both Boschi and Selvaggi (and the other scientists) never gave any reassuring information to news media but someone else (from the Civil Protection department and also under trial) did,” INGV research director Alberto Michelini told NCE. INGV is Italy’s equivalent of the British Geological Survey.

The commission comprises scientists and experts who advise Italy’s civil protection department about seismology policy (NCE 1 July 2010). The EAEE expressed concern that scientists face criminal charges for following established scientific practices. It said this could have a very adverse affect on academic research.

The letter in full

June 6, 2011

Dear Mr. President,

We are writing on behalf of the European Association for Earthquake Engineering (EAEE), to express our concern for the indictment of five scientists and two government officials, who were members of a government panel discussing earthquake risk, by the Court of L’Aquila. 

The indictment was based on the failure of those accused to warn the population before the strong earthquake of 6 April 2009 that killed about 300 people. We believe it is unacceptable to accuse and legally indict scientists and members of a governmental panel because they failed to make a prediction of an extreme natural event in a particular place or because their statements are not considered appropriate.

The earthquake rupture process is a very complex issue that cannot be predicted with our present capabilities and knowledge and we believe that it will not be possible for many years to come.  Even though from time to time there are scientists, or just amateurs, who claim that they can make predictions that include the time and location of the earthquake event, the scientific community at large treats them as speculations, and they should be disregarded by the government officials and media.   

This case, as many others in our experience, shows very vividly how media, and thus certain fractions of the society, can misinterpret the scientific statements and, sometimes, misuse them for their purposes.  

Furthermore, we believe that subjecting scientists to criminal charges for adhering to accepted scientific practices may have very adverse effects on academic research, and may prevent free exchange of ideas that is essential for progress in science and discouraging them from participating in matters of great public importance.

Finally, focusing the attention of the public opinion on possible warnings of the population for highly improbable earthquake will create expectations in this matter, thus relaxing people with respect to the real problem of seismic prevention, which is one of strengthening existing vulnerable constructions. This is a responsibility of politics and of every single citizen.  

We seek your assistance and support to relieve these scientists from this unusual and unbelievable indictment.

Most respectfully

Prof. Mihail Garevski Prof. Atilla Ansal

President Secretary General

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