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Scientists convicted for failing to predict major earthquake

An Italian court has convicted several scientists for failing to give sufficient warnings of the risk of a major earthquake in 2009. Hundreds died in the town of L'Aquila following a series of minor tremors.

The court in L'Aquila found the six scientists and one government official guilty of multiple counts of manslaughter for failing to warn the public of the risk of a large earthquake hitting the town in the days leading up to 6.3 magnitude quake in 2009 that killed 309 people.

Each was handed a six-year sentence, but none was expected to go to jail immediately as under Italian law, convictions don't come into force until after an appeals trial has been held.

Chief Prosecutor Fabio Picuti had asked for prison sentences for the defendants for failing to raise the alarm about the risks of a quake. He claimed they had provided an “incomplete, inept, unsuitable and criminally mistaken" analysis that lulled locals into a false sense of security.

The defendants were members of the Major Risks Committee, which had met in L'Aquila after a succession of small tremors hit the town in the weeks leading up to the big one.

At the end of the trial, Picuti compared the committee to the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which failed to predict Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed much of New Orleans in 2005.

Government lawyer Carlo Sica, defending the seven, called for the seven to be acquitted, claiming that minutes from a meeting they held in the town six days before the quake were not valid as evidence. The documents were signed after the tremor.

After that meeting, the experts said they could not predict an earthquake, but they called on local authorities to ensure safety rules were respected.

The defense team stressed that predicting any specific quake is impossible, a position that is backed by international researchers.

One L'Aquila resident had made amateur predictions there would be an earthquake based on levels of radon gas that appeared to be seeping up from the ground, but the validity of his methods is disputed.

Members of the international scientific community have contested the charges against the geophysicists, claiming they were being made scapegoats. More than 5,000 scientists sent a letter to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, denouncing the proceedings.

rc/pfd (AFP, Reuters)