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October 22, 2012

Italian Scientists Convicted of Not Warning of Earthquake

by VOA News

An Italian court on Monday convicted seven scientists and experts of manslaughter for underestimating the risks of a killer earthquake and failing to adequately warn citizens before it struck the central Italian town of L'Aquila in 2009.

More than 300 people were killed, tens of thousands were left homeless, and the town's historic center and medieval churches were destroyed in the 6.3-magnitude quake.

Prosecutors argued that the defendants - members of a national panel that assesses major risks - offered "incomplete, imprecise and contradictory information" to residents. The international scientific community denounced the trial, noting that predicting earthquakes is impossible. Even early warning systems, which rely on a network of sensors to detect surface seismic waves that precede larger quakes, can provide residents only 10 to 60 seconds advance notice, and then, only in areas where those sensors are in place.

After the April quake, seismologists and other experts blamed lax building codes for the deaths and damage. In many earthquake-prone parts of the world, shoddy construction practices lead to many more deaths than would occur if homes and other buildings were more structurally sound.

The trial opened last September and was adjourned for more than a year, until resuming this month. The defendants have been sentenced to six years in prison, but they are unlikely to face jail while their legal appeals are pending.

Some observers have expressed concern that the convictions will make other experts and public officials reluctant to share their expertise, to avoid any legal repercussions.