Following a fatal earthquake in Italy in 2009, a group of scientists were charged with manslaughter for failing to accurately predict it and warn the population. They went on trial yesterday (20 September).
The earthquake, which razed the city of L'Aquila in the Abruzzo region to the ground and killed 309 people, was of a 6.3 magnitude.
The group facing trial, consisting of six seismologists and a government official, were part of a government panel set up to assess the danger after the area had suffered 400 tremors in the preceding months.
The group had been unable to decide whether the tremors indicated that a stronger earthquake would take place and had given a false reassuring statement to residents of L'Aquila. On being asked whether residents should not worry and relax with a glass of wine, one of the group replied "Absolutely, absolutely a Montepulciano doc."
They were later accused of "negligence and imprudence... of having provided an approximative, generic and ineffective assessment of seismic activity risks as well as incomplete, imprecise and contradictory information".
The scientists argue that the nature of their work means they cannot give accurate predictions and deny negligence. One of the scientists' lawyers Alfredo Biondi said: "You cannot put science on trial."
More than 5,000 scientists from Italy and the rest of the world have signed a petition addressed to Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano asserting that seismic activity is difficult to predict and condemning the trial.
Rick Aster, the president of the Seismological Society of America, said: "Pursuing legal action against members of the seismological community after an earthquake is unprecedented and reflects a misunderstanding of the science of earthquakes."
But families of the victims of the earthquake disagree. Vincenzo Vittorini, a doctor who lost his wife and daughter to the earthquake, said: "No one expected to be told the exact time of the quake. We just wanted to be warned that we were sitting on a bomb."
The seven on trial will face a second hearing on 1 October. If they are found guilty, they could face 15 months in jail along with paying out compensation of £45 million.
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