An Italian court has handed down six-year jail sentences to six scientists and a senior government official for failing to properly communicate the risk ahead of the deadly L'Aquila earthquake, in a verdict that will shock and surprise the international scientific community.
In the regional court in L'Aquila, the medieval city levelled by the April 2009 disaster, all seven were found guilty of manslaughter.
Two judges decided the experts had downplayed the risk of a massive quake striking the region in the days ahead of the tragedy.
In the event, 309 lives were lost on April 6 as the ancient homes of the citizens collapsed around them while they slept.
The seven convicted, all members of a civil protection agency called the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, were accused by prosecutors of negligence and malpractice in their duty of protecting the public. All seven denied the charges.
The defendants include Enzo Boschi, the former president of Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, and Giulio Selvaggi, the organisation's current head. They were members of a panel that met six days before the disaster to assess risk after a series of tremors shook the city.
After the verdict Dr Boschi said: "I am dejected, desperate. I thought I would have been acquitted. I still don't understand what I was convicted of."
The case has drawn condemnation from leading scientists around the world. Dr John Elliott of Oxford University's Department of Earth Sciences said: "This verdict is a sad end to a tragic series of events in L'Aquila. Earthquakes cannot be predicted, and these scientists should not even have been on trial accused of providing incomplete information."
The American Geophysical Union has warned that the risk of future litigation may deter scientists from advising governments or even working to assess seismic risk.
But Wania della Vigna, a lawyer who represented 11 of the plaintiffs, said: "This is a historic sentence, above all for the victims."
The experts were also ordered to pay more than ?9m in damages.
(© Independent News Service)