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Italian scientists' failure to predict 2009 quake: a criminal offense? (video)

More than 300 people died when an earthquake struck the Italian town of L'Aquila in 2009, days after several scientists said there was 'no danger.' Now the scientists are facing a trial for manslaughter.

By Anna MomiglianoCorrespondent / September 22, 2011

Bernardo De Bernardinis, former vice chief of the the technical department of Italy's civil protection agency, right, and his lawyer Alfredo Biondi wait for the start of the trial in the Aquila Court, Italy, Tuesday, Sept. 20.

Raniero Pizzi/AP

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Milan, Italy

Almost a year and a half after a 6.3 magnitude earthquake shook central Italy – leaving more than 300 dead and the medieval town of L'Aquila in rubble – seven scientists are being charged with manslaughter in what some have described as a trial against science itself.

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The public prosecutor claims that the seven experts falsely reassured the public that there was “no danger” of a major quake in the near future in a public statement issued just six days ahead of the April 9, 2009, disaster, and are thus accountable for many deaths. Victims of the quake are also bringing civil claims against the scientists totaling 50 million euros ($68.2 million), the ANSA news agency reported.

Yet the scientific community worldwide has been outraged by the allegations, which are perceived as an attempt to scapegoat the tragedy on a group of scientists who supposedly should have foreseen it.

Thomas H. Jordan, the director of the Southern California Earthquake Center who also chaired an international panel appointed by the Italian government after the 2009 quake, wrote an article in The New Scientist in defense of his colleagues on trial.

“There is no known method to predict earthquakes with high probability,” he wrote. He also stressed the need to “separate the role of science advisers, whose job is to provide objective information about natural hazards, with that of civil decision-makers who must weigh the benefits of protective actions against the costs of false alarms."

In the months ahead of the April 9 tremor, a wave of minor quakes – a phenomenon known as a “seismic swarm” – were registered across central Italy, not far from L'Aquila. Giampaolo Giuliani, a man from the area who worked as researcher in a geo-physics laboratory (though not a seismologist himself), began warning his fellow citizens in L'Aquila that a major tremor was coming.

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