An Italian court Monday sentenced seven earthquake experts for six years in prison on charges of manslaughter for failing to warn the people of an earthquake that killed 309 people in L’Aquila city in 2009.
The court handed down the sentence to six prominent scientists and a former government official who were members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks for not warning the public despite the increased seismic activity in L’Aquila city in the weeks before the deadly quake.
Judge Marco Billi read out the names of the people killed or injured in the earthquake before pronouncing the sentence, the New York Times reported.
The defendants said they would appeal against the verdict.
The verdict has shocked the international scientific fraternity, who believe that it will have far-fetching impacts. They believe that this may lead to similar legal actions against scientists, dissuading the scientific community from engaging in forecast of natural calamities.
“This is the death of public service on the part of professors and professionals,” said Luciano Maiani, the current president of the risks commission, according to ANSA news agency.
The legal and media pressure prompted by the trial had made it impossible to carry out professional consultancies for the state, he said. “This doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world,” he said, the NY Times reported.
“I’m afraid it’s going to teach scientists to keep their mouths shut,” Thomas H. Jordan, a professor at the University of Southern California, said.
The judgment has shocked both the lawyers and the defendants as the sentence has exceeded prosecution’s request of four years in prison.
The city of L’Aquila in the Abruzzo region east of Rome bore the grunt of a 6.3-magnitude tremor in the early hours of April 6, 2009. The city’s historical town center, which was an architectural delight, was destroyed in the quake.
The risks commission had met a week before the deadly earthquake to assess the situation after frequent seismic activity had been reported in the region. However, the commission did not issue a safety warning and some of the members reportedly gave a positive picture to the media encouraging the residents to undermine the threat, the NY Times has reported quoting the prosecutors.
The judgment was hailed by the family of the victims who are yet to recover fully from the impact of the disaster.
“It’s just a tiny bit of justice so that it doesn’t happen again,” said an unidentified woman on Sky TV.
The prosecutors also cited a U.S. court ruling that held the Army of Corp Engineers responsible of “monumental negligence” over a flooding damage from Hurricane Katrina, according to ANSA.