[en] L’Aquila’s earthquake trial: scientists as politician’s puppets

Bernardo De Bernardinis (left), former assistant chief of technical offices of Civil Protection

Current news headlines in Italy concern the 6-year prison sentence given to seven scientists and officials found guilty of manslaughter. All were involved in the seismic activity committee, known as the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, which was summoned by Italy’s Civil Protection agency to consider a series of tremors in the L’Aquila area since December 2008. The Commission met six days before the earthquake in April 2009 in L’Aquila, a city of about 70,000 people and capital of the Abruzzo region in Central Italy. The disaster killed 308 people, injured over 1,600, and left tens of thousands without homes and jobs. However, Italy’s top seismologists said everything was fine.

The mainstream media (with a few exceptions like: il Manifesto and il Fatto Quotidiano) in Italy and some abroad are conducting a disgraceful campaign of disinformation, by presenting the news in a ‘populist’ way, focusing on the idea that it is not possible to predict an earthquake or its size with complete certainty. However, while this is true, the media have not accurately portrayed the reality of the matter.

As an Italian contributor said on the Union of Concerned Scientists blog, we must wait for the formal judgement to be released in order to have a clear idea of why this case was brought forward. Then, this is only the first step out of three according to Italian laws. Also, this trial was not a condemnation of “Science” as a whole, only of seven scientists who were, allegedly, under political control. The accusation against members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks is, in fact, that they “failed in their institutional duty” (Public Prosecutor’s closing speech, Italian, pdf), by not properly assessing the actual risk of lengthy seismic activity. Finally, political involvement was clearly shown by the results of a phone tap between Guido Bertolaso, the former head of Civil Protection, and Daniela Stati, a member of the regional government, deciding what should go in the minutes of the Commission’s meeting on 31 March 2009. Bertolaso told Stati to phrase the memo as “a media operation (…) So that (…) the top seismologists (…) will say (that) we need quakes to release energy and there will never be the big earthquake”. He then concluded that “instead of us doing the talking, we make the top scientists in the field of seismology speak”.

The verdict is a controversial one, and many scholars from all over the world are accusing judge Marco Billi of having put “Science” on trial, and of creating a precedent that will intimidate every scientist who gives expert opinion to the Italian government. This is why Luciano Maiani, the current president of the Commission, and many others have resigned a couple of days ago. From abroad, scientists and newspapers appear to be considering only this point of view. Michael Halpern from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), for instance, commented: “This (…) coming from the home country of Galileo. I guess some things never change”. Unfortunately, Italian politicians are adding little of substance to the matter.

Since 6 April 2009, L’Aquila’s citizens have shown a remarkable spirit of resistance, trying – in many ways and against the odds – to regain their feet, restart their lives, and rebuild their social environment, in what some would like to consider a ghost town. They have been struggling with difficulty against the Government’s “top-down” approach (with little or no difference between Berlusconi and Monti). Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was very proud of “his” C.A.S.E. (the Italian word for “homes”) project. This project involves the construction of 19 new towns at some distance from L’Aquila’s medieval centre, without “piazze” (squares/plazas, traditional meeting and social spaces in Italy), and with very few urban services (such as buses, green spaces and so on). Clearly a long way behind those who are opposing this approach, Renzo Piano, the well-known Italian architect, remarked this month that “people all over the world build and think of going beyond suburbs. L’Aquila is the only place where suburbs have been constructed from scratch” (8 October 2012).

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