ROME (Reuters) - An Italian appeals court on Monday overturned a 2012 manslaughter conviction against six scientists and a government official for failing to give adequate warning of an earthquake in L’Aquila five years ago that killed more than 300 people.
Judge Fabrizia Ida Francabandera said there was no case to answer, according to video streaming of her reading the verdict, absolving the defendants of a six-year jail sentence handed down two years ago.
The seven, all members of an official body called the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, were accused of negligence and malpractice in their evaluation of the danger of an earthquake in comments made less than a week before the disaster.
The case has drawn wide condemnation from international bodies including the American Geophysical Union, which said the risk of litigation may deter scientists from advising governments or even working to assess seismic risk.
A 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck L’Aquila, in Italy’s central Abruzzo region, at 3:32 a.m. on April 6, 2009, destroying tens of thousands of buildings, killing hundreds of people and injuring more than 1,500 others.
At the heart of the case was whether, under political pressure, the government-appointed experts gave an overly reassuring picture of the risks facing the town.
Over the centuries, L’Aquila had already been hit by deadly and destructive quakes three times, and it was shaken by a series of tremors in the months leading up to the 2009 tragedy.
One defendant, a government official from the state civil protection agency, was convicted on a separate charge of manslaughter, but handed a two-year suspended sentence.
Families of victims of the earthquake, and lawyers representing them in the civil case against the defendants, called the ruling “shameful” and pledged to appeal. The trial can be appealed once more before the ruling becomes definitive.
Italy’s National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology welcomed the decision with “great satisfaction”.
Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Dominic Evans