Italian Seisomologists On Trial for Failing To Warn About 2009 Quake
A very interesting trial began in Italy on Tuesday as seven scientists and other experts were brought to trial on charges of manslaughter for failing to warn enough the residents of the Italian city L’Aquila about the imminence of a devastating earthquake that claimed the lives of more than 300 people in 2009.
The trial is closely watched by seismologists around the globe, who insist that it is impossible to predict earthquake or to suggest otherwise and that seismologists will be discouraged to issue any advice in the future because of the possibility that that may bring them to justice.
Last year, 5,200 international researchers signed a petition in support of their Italian colleagues, while the Seismology Society of America wrote to the president of Italy Georgio Napolitano expressing their concern over what they call an unprecedented legal attack on science.
The seven scientists are accused of having offered “conflicting and incomplete” data about whether the smaller tremors felt by the residents in L’Aquila for six months before April 6, 2009 were grounds for a more serious quake.
The prosecution is using a memo issued by the Great Risk commission on March 31, 2009, in which it is stated that it was “improbable” that serious quakes may happen, even though it added that one could not be excluded altogether.
Prosecution also retains that following the meeting, the commission members gave large interviews in the local media, reassuring the people that no earthquake would happen, which convince the people to stay home and thus become victims.
The defense is basing on the impossibility to predict quakes, on which the lawyers of the seven seismologists affirm the innocence of their clients.
On Tuesday, dozens of plaintiffs were inscribed in the civil portion of the case which will be judged along the criminal case. People are demanding 50 million euro compensation.
The only defendant present at this trial was Bernardo de Bernardinis, then vice chief of the technical department of the Italian civil protection agency. One of the interviews De Bernardinis gave to the local media in March 2009 was especially quoted by prosecutors, the one in which, after reaffirming the impossibility to predict quakes and saying that six-month low seismic activity was not guarantee for a larger quake, he advised the people to relax with a glass of wine in their hands because nothing would happen.
On April 9, 2009, the powerful 6.3 quake killed 308 people at L’Aquila and turned the medieval city to dust. Thousands of people were forced to live in tents until their homes were rebuilt.
Seismological Society of America said that pursuing legal action against seismologists after an earthquake shows a misunderstanding of seismology.
Other organizations said that indictment in this case would discourage many scientists from working in the field of seismology and would prejudice the understanding of this natural phenomenon.
There is a possibility that the case may also include charges that are not directed towards scientists, since it was obvious that many buildings in L’Aquila were not prepared to face a serious earthquake.
Legal suits with charges of manslaughter related to quakes are not unusual in Italy only that usually they are related to violations of building codes in seismic regions.
The protest issued by the international seismological community may prove futile in case the prosecution shifts the focus of the case from the impossibility to predict earthquake to the assurances the scientists in question gave the people of L’Aquila.
For it stands to logic that while one has no means to predict whether an earthquake is about to occur or not, they should not give the people assurances that the quake is not going to happen. After all, by inviting people to relax with a glass of Montepulciano D.O.C. in their hands, De Bernardinis implicitly predicted the non-occurrence of the tremor, which by seismological standards is impossible, as the Seismological Society of America and De Bernardinis’s lawyers have pointed out so correctly.11