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DEBATE #5: ARE THE SCIENTIST GUILTY?

L'Aquila quake:
Italy scientists guilty of
manslaughter
The earthquake devastated the city of L'Aquila and many surrounding villages
Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been sentenced to six years in prison over the 2009
deadly earthquake in L'Aquila.
A regional court found them guilty of multiple manslaughter. Prosecutors said the defendants gave a falsely reassuring
statement before the quake, while the defence maintained there was no way to predict major quakes.
The 6.3 magnitude quake devastated the city
and killed 309 people. Many smaller tremors
had rattled the area in the months before the
quake that destroyed much of the historic
centre.
It took Judge Marco Billi slightly more than
four hours to reach the verdict in the trial,
which had begun in September 2011.
Lawyers have said that they will appeal
against the sentence. As convictions are not
definitive until after at least one level of
appeal in Italy, it is unlikely any of the
defendants will immediately face prison.

'Alarming' case
The seven - all members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks - were accused of
having provided "inexact, incomplete and contradictory" information about the danger of the tremors felt ahead of 6 April
2009 quake, Italian media report.
In addition to their sentences, all have been barred from ever holding public office again, La Repubblica reports. In the
closing statement, the prosecution quoted one of its witnesses, whose father died in the earthquake. It described how
Guido Fioravanti had called his mother at about 11pm on the night of the earthquake - straight after the first tremor. "I
remember the fear in her voice. On other occasions they would have fled but that night, with my father, they repeated to
themselves what the risk commission had said. And they stayed."

THOSE CONVICTED

Franco Barberi, head of Serious Risks Commission


Enzo Boschi, former president of the National Institute of Geophysics
Giulio Selvaggi, director of National Earthquake Centre
Gian Michele Calvi, director of European Centre for Earthquake Engineering
Claudio Eva, physicist
Mauro Dolce, director of the the Civil Protection Agency's earthquake risk office
Bernardo De Bernardinis, former vice-president of Civil Protection Agency's technical department

'Hasty sentence'
The judge also ordered the defendants to pay court costs and damages. Reacting to the verdict against him, Bernardo
De Bernardinis said: "I believe myself to be innocent before God and men". "My life from tomorrow will change", the
former vice-president of the Civil Protection Agency's technical department said, according to La Repubblica. "But, if I am
judged by all stages of the judicial process to be guilty, I will accept my responsibility."
Another, Enzo Boschi, described himself as "dejected" and "desperate" after the verdict was read. "I thought I would
have been acquitted. I still don't understand what I was convicted of." One of the lawyers for the defence, Marcello
Petrelli, described the sentences as "hasty" and "incomprehensible".

'Inherently unpredictable'
The case has alarmed many in the scientific community, who feel science itself has been put on trial. Some scientists
have warned that the case might set a damaging precedent, deterring experts from sharing their knowledge with the
public for fear of being targeted in lawsuits, the BBC's Alan Johnston in Rome reports. Among those convicted were
some of Italy's most prominent and internationally respected seismologists and geological experts.
Earlier, more than 5,000 scientists signed an open letter to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano in support of the
group in the dock. After the verdict was announced, David Rothery, of the UK's Open University, said earthquakes were
"inherently unpredictable". "The best estimate at the time was that the low-level seismicity was not likely to herald a
bigger quake, but there are no certainties in this game," he said.
Malcolm Sperrin, director of medical physics at the UK's Royal Berkshire Hospital said that the sentence was surprising
and could set a worrying precedent. "If the scientific community is to be penalised for making predictions that turn out to
be incorrect, or for not accurately predicting an event that subsequently occurs, then scientific endeavour will be
restricted to certainties only and the benefits that are associated with findings from medicine to physics will be stalled."

Analysis
Jonathan Amos Science correspondent
The Apennines, the belt of mountains that runs down through the centre of Italy, is riddled with faults, and the "Eagle" city
of L'Aquila has been hammered time and time again by earthquakes. Its glorious old buildings have had to be patched
up and re-built on numerous occasions.
Sadly, the issue is not "if" but "when" the next tremor will occur in L'Aquila. But it is simply not possible to be precise
about the timing of future events. Science does not possess that power. The best it can do is talk in terms of risk and of
probabilities, the likelihood that an event of a certain magnitude might occur at some point in the future.
The decision to prosecute some of Italy's leading geophysicists drew condemnation from around the world. The scholarly
bodies said it had been beyond anyone to predict exactly what would happen in L'Aquila on 6 April 2009.
But the authorities who pursued the seven defendants stressed that the case was never about the power of prediction - it
was about what was interpreted to be an inadequate characterisation of the risks; of being misleadingly reassuring about
the dangers that faced their city.
Nonetheless, the verdicts will come as a shock to all researchers in Italy whose expertise lies in the field of assessing
natural hazards. Their pronouncements will be scrutinised as never before, and their fear will be that they too could find
themselves embroiled in legal action over statements that are inherently uncertain.