ROME (AP) — Seven scientists and other experts went on trial on manslaughter charges Tuesday for allegedly failing to sufficiently warn residents before a devastating 2009 earthquake that killed more than 300 people in central Italy.
The case is being closely watched by seismologists around the globe who insist it's impossible to predict earthquakes and dangerous to suggest otherwise, since seismologists will be discouraged from issuing any advice at all if they fear legal retaliation.
Last year, about 5,200 international researchers signed a petition supporting their Italian colleagues. The Seismological Society of America wrote to Italy's president expressing concern about what it called an unprecedented legal attack on science.
The seven defendants are accused of giving "inexact, incomplete and contradictory information" about whether smaller tremors felt by L'Aquila residents in the six months before the April 6, 2009 quake should have constituted grounds for a quake warning.
"We all know well that earthquakes cannot be predicted. This is not in the point here," said Vincenzo Vittorini, a relative of a victim, who attended the trial.
Rather, he said, because of the failure of the scientists to say a significant quake could be possible, victims and their relatives missed a chance to take preventative measures.
Prosecutors focused on a memo issued after an expert commission meeting on mounting concerns about the months of seismic activity in the region. Released a week before the big quake, it concluded it was "improbable" that there would be a major temblor, though it added that one couldn't be excluded.
Commission members also gave largely reassuring interviews to local media after the meeting which "persuaded the victims to stay at home," the indictment said.
The defendants' lawyers have insisted on their clients' innocence and stressed the impossibility of predicting quakes.
The 6.3-magnitude temblor killed 308 people in and around the medieval town of L'Aquila, which was largely reduced to rubble. Thousands of survivors lived in tent camps or temporary housing for months.
Tuesday's hearing was largely taken up with procedural details to inscribe the dozens of plaintiffs in the civil portion of the case, which will be heard alongside the criminal case. The plaintiffs are seeking some euro50 million ($68.2 million) in damages, the ANSA news agency said. The judge set the next hearing for Oct. 1.
Experts stressed to local media the impossibility of predicting quakes and saying that even six months worth of low-magnitude temblors was not unusual in the highly seismic region.
In one now-infamous interview included in the prosecutors' case, Bernardo De Bernardinis, then-vice chief of the technical department of Italy's civil protection agency, responded to a question about whether residents should just sit back and relax with a glass of wine.
"Absolutely, absolutely a Montepulciano doc," he responded, referring to a high-end red. "This seems important."
The indictments sent shudders throughout the international earthquake community, which responded to a call for support by Italy's geophysics institute with 5,200 signatories of professors, seismologists, postdocs and researchers from New Zealand to Costa Rica, Japan to Martinique.
"Pursuing legal action against members of the seismological community after an earthquake is unprecedented and reflects a misunderstanding of the science of earthquakes," the president of the Seismological Society of America, Rick Aster wrote President Giorgio Napolitano.
Efforts should instead focus on working to better communicate earthquake risks to the public and boosting preparedness by retrofitting old and dangerous buildings, he said.
A lawyer representing families of the victims denied that science was on trial.
"The science is not on trial here, as they say, this is not the trial of Galileo Galilei, but it is a trial to judge if there were responsibilities, mistakes, or incorrect behavior by those scientists who held the meeting in L'Aquila before the earthquake happened," said lawyer Wania della Vigna.
Many of the structures that collapsed in the 2009 quake were not properly built to standards for a quake-prone area like the central Apennine region of Abruzzo. Among the buildings which cracked and crumbled was L'Aquila's hospital, just as it was struggling to treat about 1,500 injured.
Nobody inside the hospital, which was built in the 1970s, was killed or injured in the quake.
Manslaughter charges are not unusual in Italy for natural disasters such as quakes, but they have previously focused on violations of building codes in seismic regions.
In 2009, for example, an appeals court convicted five people in the 2002 quake-triggered collapse of a school in southern San Giuliano di Puglia that killed 27 children — including the town's entire first-grade class — and a teacher. Prosecutors had alleged that shoddy construction contributed to the collapse of the school.
Alicia Chang in Los Angeles contributed to this report.