Six Italian scientists and a government official were found guilty yesterday of multiple manslaughter for underestimating the risks of a killer earthquake in the town of L'Aquila in 2009.
They were sentenced to six years in jail in the watershed ruling in a case that has provoked outrage in the international science community. In Italy, convictions are not definitive until after at least one level of appeals, so it is unlikely any of the defendants will face jail immediately.
Prosecutor Fabio Picuti had asked for jail sentences of four years for each defendant for failing to alert the population of the medieval town of L'Aquila to the risks, days before the 6.3-magnitude quake killed 309 people.
All seven were members of the Major Risks Committee which met in the central Italian town on March 31, 2009 - six days before the quake devastated the region. Picuti yesterday compared the committee to the US Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was castigated for failing to assess the risks before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005.
But Alfredo Biondi, the lawyer for expert Claudio Eva, had rejected his claim, saying: "While floods and hurricanes can be forecast, earthquakes cannot."
Among those convicted were some of Italy's most prominent and internationally respected seismologists and geological experts, including Enzo Boschi, former head of the national Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology.
"I am dejected, desperate," Boschi said after the verdict. "I thought I would have been acquitted. I still don't understand what I was convicted of."
The committee met after a series of small tremors in the preceding weeks had sown panic among locals - particularly after a resident began making unofficial earthquake predictions.
Italy's top seismologists were called in to evaluate the situation and the then vice-director of the Civil Protection agency, Bernardo de Bernardinis, said the seismic activity posed "no danger".
The prosecution had accused Bernardinis of using the meeting to calm the residents - he famously advised them to relax with a glass of wine.