Friday, October 30, 2015

Official behind earthquake advice to stand trial in Italy

By Edwin Cartlidge

A high-ranking public official who sent a group of scientists to L'Aquila to assess seismic risk ahead of the deadly earthquake that struck the city in 2009 is to stand trial on charges of manslaughter, a judge ruled today. His trial follows the October 2012 conviction and sentencing to 6 years in prison of the seven experts, and the acquittal of all bar one of them last November.

Guido Bertolaso, who at the time of the earthquake was head of Italy's civil protection department, set up a meeting of the experts as full or acting members of an official panel known as the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks on 31 March 2009, ostensibly to analyze the risk posed by a series of small- and medium-sized earthquakes that had been shaking the region around L'Aquila for several months. But following the earthquake, which struck 6 days later leaving 309 dead, the scientists were accused of having provided the public with a false and fatal sense of security.

The experts—Bertolaso's deputy together with three seismologists, a volcanologist, and two seismic engineers—were put on trial in L'Aquila in September 2011 and charged with having carried out a superficial risk analysis during their 2009 meeting. The prosecution alleged that they made a series of unjustifiably reassuring statements that led some people to abandon traditional precaution and remain indoors during the quake.

The new trial centers on a telephone call that Bertolaso made to a local official the evening before the experts' meeting, a police recording of which was released by the newspaper La Repubblica during the original trial. In the call, Bertolaso described the meeting as a "media operation" that he was setting up in order to "shut up" a technician from a nearby physics laboratory who had allegedly made a series of alarmist predictions that had panicked the local population.

During the call, Bertolaso also told the official what the scientists would say in their meeting—that the ongoing tremors were positive because they discharged energy and so made a major earthquake less likely. Many witnesses during the trial said that it was this idea of an energy discharge that had particularly reassured their relatives, leading them to remain inside and perish on the fateful night.

Manslaughter investigations against Bertolaso started just a few days after the recording of the phone call came to light in January 2012 but it is only now that judge Guendalina Buccella has ordered him to stand trial. The prosecutor in the original trial, Fabio Picuti, twice requested that the case against Bertolaso be dropped, and on both occasions that request was contested by lawyers representing relatives of some of the victims. But judge Buccella today ruled that the former civil protection boss should be tried, and that the first hearing should take place in L'Aquila on 20 November, just a day after the trial of the seven scientists reaches the Supreme Court of Cassation, Italy's highest appeal court.

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