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'We won’t advise the state again': Scientists outraged at Italian seismologists' jailing

Published time: October 23, 2012 18:13
Edited time: October 23, 2012 22:38
One of the indicted, Bernardo De Bernardinis, who was in 2009 deputy chief of Italy's Civil Protection Department, reacts during a session of the court in charge of the trial of six Italian scientists and a government official charged with manslaughter for underestimating the risks of a killer earthquake in 2009.(AFP Photo/Filippo Monteforte)

One of the indicted, Bernardo De Bernardinis, who was in 2009 deputy chief of Italy's Civil Protection Department, reacts during a session of the court in charge of the trial of six Italian scientists and a government official charged with manslaughter for underestimating the risks of a killer earthquake in 2009.(AFP Photo/Filippo Monteforte)

The head of Italy’s disaster evaluation body has quit in protest against the conviction of seven of his colleagues for failing to warn people of a deadly earthquake in 2009. Scientists all over the world have expressed outrage at the verdict.

Luciano Maiani, the former director of CERN, and the head of the Serious Risks Commission, tendered his resignation alongside his deputy and other senior officials.

"The situation created by yesterday's sentence… is incompatible with running the commission's work in a calm and efficient manner and with its role of giving high level advice to the organs of the state," said Maiani’s statement, which was posted on the agency's official website.

Following a series of minor tremors in the central Italian city of L’Aquila in March 2009, the previous Serious Risks Commission head Franco Barberi told the media that there is "no reason to believe that a swarm of minor events is a sure predictor of a major shock."

Several days later a 6.3 Richter-scale earthquake killed 309 people.

On Monday, Barberi and six other senior scientists in the emergency services were jailed for six years for manslaughter (two more than the prosecutor demanded) for giving a “misleadingly reassuring statement” and causing at least 29 people who wanted to leave the town to stay instead.

"These are professionals who spoke in good faith and were by no means motivated by personal interests, they had always said that it is not possible to predict an earthquake," said Maiani of his predecessors, many of whom are leading world-class seismologists.

"This is the end of scientists giving consultations to the state."

The reaction from outside Italy was unanimous.

The court in charge of the trial of six Italian scientists and a government official charged with manslaughter for underestimating the risks of a killer earthquake in 2009 takes place for a session on October 22, 2012 in L′Aquila. (AFP Photo/Filippo Monteforte)
The court in charge of the trial of six Italian scientists and a government official charged with manslaughter for underestimating the risks of a killer earthquake in 2009 takes place for a session on October 22, 2012 in L'Aquila. (AFP Photo/Filippo Monteforte)

“It's chilling that people can be jailed for giving a scientific opinion in the line of their work," said Roger Musson, the head of seismic hazard and archives at the British Geological Survey, on Twitter.

"To predict a large quake on the basis of a relatively commonplace sequence of small earthquakes, and to advise the local population to flee would constitute both bad science and bad public policy," claimed David Oglesby, an associate professor at the earth sciences faculty of the University of California, Riverside.

Nature magazine was just one of many leading scientific publications that wrote an editorial condemning the decision.

After the charges were first announced two years ago, more than 5,000 scientists published an open letter in defense of the seismologists to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.

Inside Italy, many leading politicians also met the sentence with dismay, suggesting the country – whose justice system had already been questioned after the overturned Amanda Knox conviction – would open itself up to international ridicule.

"The risk is that doubt will no longer be allowed to form part of scientific judgement," said Interior Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri.

"The role of science is not the same as politics or administration."

The scientists will not have to serve their sentences until they are confirmed by the first court of appeal.

"I trust the verdict will be corrected on first appeal," said Gianfranco Fini, the speaker of Italian Parliament.

Bernardo De Bernardinis, the former vice president of the Civil Protection Agency's technical department, said: "I believe myself to be innocent before God and men."