22/10/2012 12:41 BST | Updated 22/12/2012 05:12 GMT

L'Aquila Quake: Italian Experts Sentenced For Failing To Predict Earthquake

Seven Italian experts have been convicted in a criminal court of failing to warn of the deadly 2009 L'Aquila earthquake in a case that has sparked outrage in the scientific community.

Six scientists and and an ex-government official were all sentenced to six years in prison on multiple manslaughter charges by Judge Marco Billi on Monday afternoon.

Seismologists have expressed concern that a possible precedent could be set for prosecuting scientists over events such as this, which they say are very difficult to predict accurately.

The 6.3 magnitude quake struck L'Aquila, the capital of Abruzzo in the centre of the nation, killing 309 people, damaging between 3,000 and 11,000 buildings and leaving 40,000 homeless.

Prosecutors alleged that the defendants gave "inexact, incomplete and contradictory information" about whether smaller tremors that preceded the quake were a sign that a major disaster was about to strike.

A lawyer addresses the court during the trial

This, said the prosecution, gave residents a false sense of security.

More than 5,000 people have signed a petition supporting the defendants, who were part of Italy's Serious Risks Commission, according to the BBC.

It reported Government lawyer Carlo Sica as saying that "they are not guilty of anything, the earthquake's no-one's fault".

Dr David Rothery, Senior Lecturer in Earth Sciences, Open University, voiced his support of the scientists following the decision.

He said: "I hope they will appeal. Earthquakes are inherently unpredictable. The best estimate at the time was that the low level seismicity was not likely to herald a bigger quake, but there are no certainties in this game.”

Richard Walters of Oxford University's Department of Earth Sciences described the verdict as a travesty.

He said: "I am very saddened to hear about the verdict. The issue here is about miscommunication of science, and we should not be putting responsible scientists who gave measured, scientifically accurate information in prison. This sets a very dangerous precedent and I fear it will discourage other scientists from offering their advice on natural hazards and trying to help society in this way.

"I have read the translated minutes of the meeting of the Grand Commission of High Risks on the 31st March, and the scientific information that was conveyed within that meeting was not inexact, incomplete or contradictory. It was clear, measured and scientifically accurate.

"The prosecution have not distinguished between the different defendant's actions or words. To be prosecuted for other people's miscommunication of your scientific advice is a travesty."

Professor Malcolm Sperrin, Director of Medical Physics, Royal Berkshire Hospital, Reading, also backed the Italian experts.

He said: "Assuming that negligence and malpractice are not factors here then the prosecution, and now sentences, of the Italian seismologists comes as a considerable surprise.

"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. It is never the case that predictions are completely without uncertainty and any scientist will make this clear as well as an estimation of how accurate such predictions are.

“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.

"It is worth pointing out that many of the valuable contributions made by scientists such as penicillin, radiobiology and the like have stemmed from the enquiring mind rather than absolute certainty of success.”