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Scientists found guilty in Italy quake trial

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Six Italian scientists and a government official have been found guilty of multiple manslaughter for underestimating the risks of a deadly earthquake in the town of L'Aquila in 2009 that left 309 people dead.

Judge Marco Billi on Monday sentenced all seven members of Italy's Major Risks Committee to six years in prison for failing to warn the population of the risks just days before L'Aquila and surrounding towns were hit by the earthquake.

The members were also ordered to pay court costs and damages.

Some commentators had warned that any convictions would dissuade other experts from sharing their expertise for fear of legal retribution.

Failure to alert

Prosecutors have argued that the seven - all members of the Major Risks Committee - failed to adequately alert the town's population after studying a series of small tremors in the weeks before the 6.3-magnitude quake struck.

The experts provided "an incomplete, inept, unsuitable and criminally mistaken" analysis, downplaying risks and reassuring residents, leaving them unprepared for the quake, said prosecutors during the year-long trial.

The committee met six days before the earthquake devastated the region, tearing down houses and churches and leaving thousands homeless.

The then vice-director of Italy's Civil Protection department, Bernardo De Bernardinis, told reporters the seismic activity in L'Aquila posed "no danger" and advised residents to relax with a glass of wine.

But government lawyer Carlo Sica has called for the seven defendants to be acquitted.

Minutes from the March 31 meeting were not valid as evidence because they were only written and signed following the April 6 earthquake, he argued.

"They are not guilty of anything, the earthquake's no-one's fault," he said.

Last week Filippo Dinacci, lawyer for De Bernardinis and one of the other defendants, denounced the charges as something out of "medieval criminal law".

Outrage

The case sparked outrage when the charges were brought against the geophysicists in 2010. Many commentators complained that the scientists were merely scapegoats and that science itself was being put on trial.

More than 5,000 members of the scientific community sent an open letter to Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano denouncing the trial. Their colleagues were being prosecuted for having failed to predict an earthquake: but that was a feat widely acknowledged to be impossible, they argued.

Prosecutor Fabio Picuti, however, insists the point is not whether they could have predicted the quake. He says the government-appointed experts' job was to evaluate the risk and advise a large population in a town with fragile, ancient buildings.

The seven defendants include Enzo Boschi, who at the time was the head of Italy's national geophysics institute; Giulio Selvaggio, head of the INVV's national earthquake centre in Rome; and Franco Barberi of Rome's University
Three.

The other scientists on trial are Mauro Dolce, head of the Civil Protection's seismic risk office, Gian Michele Calvi, head of the European Centre for Training and Research in Earthquake Engineering (EUcentre); and Claudio Eva of the University of Genoa.


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