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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Italian Appeals Court at L'Aquila overturns Scientists convictions on Earthquake

In Insurance parlance, we often come across the terminology “Act of God” – which refers to natural events that cause damage and cannot  be prevented – they are bigger natural disasters such as floods, cyclones, hurricanes and  earthquakes.  An earthquake (also known as a quake, tremor or temblor) is the result of a sudden release of energy in the Earth's crust that creates seismic waves.  Earthquakes are measured using observations from seismometers. The moment magnitude is the most common scale on which earthquakes larger than approximately 5 are reported for the entire globe. The more numerous earthquakes smaller than magnitude 5 reported by national seismological observatories are measured mostly on the local magnitude scale, also referred to as the Richter magnitude scale.

L'Aquila [meaning "The Eagle"] is a city in Southern Italy.  On 6th April 2009, an earthquake occurred  here – rated  5.8 or 5.9 on the Richter scale and 6.3 on the moment magnitude scale- the earthquake was felt throughout central Italy; 309 people are known to have died, making this the deadliest earthquake to hit Italy since the 1980 Irpinia earthquake. This is no post on the impact of severity but other consequences that troubled people or rather officials.  In an inquiry of the handling of the disaster, seven members of the Italian National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks were accused of giving "inexact, incomplete and contradictory" information about the danger of the tremors prior to the main quake. In Oct 2012, six scientists and one ex-government official were convicted of multiple manslaughter for downplaying the likelihood of a major earthquake six days before it took place. They were each sentenced to six years' imprisonment – the Scientists and Official had to fight through the legal process. 

Their conviction and ruling by a court in the shattered city defied the commonly held view that earthquakes cannot be predicted and prompted outrage from the world's scientific community. One of the victim was quoted as saying - "It was a very Italian and medieval decision." Another expert who too was sentenced – who was head of Italy's national geology and volcanology institute in 2009, compared himself to Galileo, the Italian scientist who was tried by the Vatican in 1633 for claiming the Earth revolved around the sun.

A regional court in Italy found them guilty of multiple manslaughter. Prosecutors said the defendants gave a falsely reassuring statement before the quake, while the defence maintained there was no way to predict major quakes. The seven - all members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks - were accused of having provided "inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory" information about the danger of the tremors felt ahead of Apr 2009 quake, Italian media reported. Though Scientific analysis present it that -  the issue is not "if" but "when" the next tremor will occur in L'Aquila; it is  simply not possible to be precise about the timing of future events. Science does not possess that power. The best it can do is talk in terms of risk and of probabilities, the likelihood that an event of a certain magnitude might occur at some point in the future.

The decision to prosecute some of Italy's leading geophysicists drew condemnation from around the world. The authorities who pursued the seven defendants stressed that the case was never about the power of prediction - it was about what was interpreted to be an inadequate characterisation of the risks; of being misleadingly reassuring about the dangers that faced their city. The conviction came as a shock to all researchers in Italy whose expertise lies in the field of assessing natural hazards.  In addition to their sentences,  they were barred from ever holding public office again. The judge also ordered the defendants to pay court costs and damages.

Some scientists warned that the case might set a damaging precedent, deterring experts from sharing their knowledge with the public for fear of being targetted in lawsuits. In a show of support, more than 5,000 scientists signed an open letter to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano in support of the group in the dock.  Experts supporting condemned saying "If the scientific community is to be penalised for making predictions that turn out to be incorrect, or for not accurately predicting an event that subsequently occurs, then scientific endeavour will be restricted to certainties only and the benefits that are associated with findings from medicine to physics will be stalled’

Now in Nov 2014 comes the news that Scientists jailed for manslaughter because they did not predict deadly earthquake in Italy which killed 309 people have been cleared. Some of the Italy's most respected seismologists were among those jailed for 6 years.  The case was watched closely by seismologists around the world who insist it's impossible to predict earthquakes and that no major temblor has ever been foretold. In 2011, a spokesman for the U.S. Geological Society  conveyed its opinion  that the investigation 'has a medieval flavour to it - like witches are being put on trial.' In seismology, as with many other branches of the pure and applied sciences, opinions are derived from observables and the application of experience and training.

Now the scientific community is celebrating the news that those convicted have won an appeal against their conviction on Nov. 10.  An appeals court in L'Aquila overturned the 2012 convictions and completely cleared the six scientists, according to the Associated Press. However, the Appeals court on Monday upheld the guilty verdict against De Bernardinis, issuing a two-year sentence. At the time of the earthquake, De Bernardinis was a deputy director with the Italian government's Civil Protection unit.

In the eyes of many, the verdict handed out by an appeals court in the Italian city of L’Aquila this week represents a return to sanity on the part of the country’s justice system. The near-complete reversal of the original verdict, no matter the legal merits involved, may feed the idea that ordinary people are being ignored. Lawyers representing several relatives of the deceased have said they will contest the decision in the Court of Cassation, Italy’s highest court of appeal. The public prosecutor may do likewise. There may thus be yet further twists in this strange and tragic tale.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar

17th Nov. 2014

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