Experts quit over L'Aquila quake verdict amid global shock

'Country of Galileo' says US body

Experts quit over L'Aquila quake verdict amid global shock

Rome, October 23 - Some of Italy's top earthquake experts resigned on Tuesday after a controversial manslaughter verdict against seven of their colleagues in the catastrophic L'Aquila quake of 2009. Monday's ruling, in which seven top-level scientists and public officials were found guilty in connection with the tremor that killed more than 300 people, also spurred disbelief and dismay across the global scientific community. Physicist Luciano Maiani resigned as president of Italy's principal natural-disaster risk-assessment body in the wake of the sentence. He told ANSA that he had decided to resign due to the "impossibility for the Commission of being able to work with serenity and provide the State with a high level of scientific consultancy in such complex conditions". The Commission's vicepresidente Mauro Rosi and its president emeritus Giuseppe Zamberletti also stepped down. One of the defendants was Mauro Dolce, director of the civil protection department's seismic and volcanic risks office, who also on Tuesday handed in his resignation. On Monday a L'Aquila court sentenced seven scientists, all members of the Commission on Major Risks at the time of the earthquake, to six years in jail and barred them from public office for allegedly providing "superficial and ineffective" assessment of seismic risk and of disclosing "inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory" information regarding earthquake danger. The trial focused on one event in particular, in which the Committee on Major Risks met on March 31, 2009 in L'Aquila to examine rumblings that had frightened residents for months. In a memo, the experts concluded that it was "unlikely" that there would be a major quake, though it stressed that the possibility could not be ruled out. One week later the 6.3-magnitude tremor hit, toppling buildings, killing 309 people and displacing 65,000 more in and around the city. The national and international scientific community has slammed the court verdict, saying it sets a dangerous precedent as major earthquakes cannot be accurately predicted. Meanwhile on Tuesday L'Aquila journalist Giustino Parisse who lost his two sons and father in the earthquake wrote in the Abruzzo paper Il Centro that he does not "feel able to take my anger out on those men". "I have shaken hands with some of them over the last few months, including during the trial, and I did not find them to be stained with blood. I saw fragile men who were perhaps aware that they had made a mistake and for that reason were caught up in the turmoil of a tragedy that also swept them away", he wrote. The seven defendants are to appeal against the sentence in a case that could be heard towards the end of next year. It could take years if it goes on to to the third level of appeal, at the Court of Cassation. SCIENTIFIC WORLD DISMAYED. Scientists from the United States to Japan were shocked at the ruling and expressed support for those convicted. The verdict "came in the birthplace of Galileo, some things never change," said an influential US body, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), referring to the great scientist who was forced by the Inquisition to abjure his discoveries about the solar system. The UCS urged President Giorgio Napolitano to intervene in the case, repeating the scientific community's view that it is "impossible" to predict earthquakes. The ruling was "absurd and dangerous," the UCS said. The verdict also aroused concern in Japan where Shinichi Sakai of the Earthquake Research Institute in Tokyo said he would have taken the same defence line as the Italian seismologists, because, he said, "it is not possible to say when a strong tremor will occur. "Imagine if the government filed criminal charges against a meteorologist who was unable to forecast the exact path of a tornado," Sakai said. "Or an epidemiologist who didn't predict the dangerous effects of a virus". Reports of the verdict were splashed all over the Japanese press, which recalled Japan's catastrophic quake and tsunami of March 2011. Sakai told ANSA that in Japan, a country that accounts for 20% of each year's worldwide quakes above magnitude 6, "there have never been similar trials". The science of predicting tremors, he said, "is today considered very difficult, as a recent meeting of the Seismological Society of Japan reaffirmed". Among reactions in Italy Tuesday, scientists and opinion leaders like House Speaker Gianfranco Fini called for the sentence to be reviewed. In the run-up to Monday's pronouncement by a L'Aquila judge, the case had received widespread international attention, with over 5,000 scientists from around the world signing a letter supporting those on trial.

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