Scientists go on trial for failing to predict quake

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A group of Italian scientists went on trial yesterday accused of manslaughter for playing down the risks before a devastating earthquake in L'Aquila in 2009 that killed more than 300 people and razed the medieval city to the ground.

Prosecutors say the six experts and one senior official should have warned people of the danger in the days leading up to the 6 April 6, after earlier seismic activity. But the international scientific community has rallied around the Italian experts and claimed that they could not have predicted the quake that measured 6.3 on the Richter scale.

The seven include prominent scientists Enzo Boschi, until recently the president of Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology; and Claudio Eva, a physics professor at the University of Genova. They were members of a panel that had met six days before the disaster to assess risk after earlier tremors had shaken the walled city.

At that meeting, the committee headed by Franco Barberi, of the Civil Protection Agency, concluded there was no evidence to suggest that a major quake was imminent, even though more than 400 low-magnitude shocks had occurred in the Abruzzo region.

In one much-quoted interview, Bernardo De Bernardinis, then vice-chief of the technical division of Italy's civil protection agency, responded casually to a question about whether residents should just sit back and relax with a glass of wine with: "Absolutely – a Montepulciano Doc."

Prosecutors say the panel gave overly reassuring information to local people, who might otherwise have taken measures to protect themselves.