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Italy earthquake verdict will cause "paralysis:" agency

An Italian military carabinieri walks on debris past destroyed buildings after an earthquake, in downtown Aquila, in this April 6, 2009 file
An Italian military carabinieri walks on debris past destroyed buildings after an earthquake, in downtown Aquila, in this April 6, 2009 file

By James Mackenzie

ROME (Reuters) - Italy's Civil Protection agency said on Tuesday that the manslaughter conviction of seven scientists and officials over a deadly 2009 earthquake in the central city of L'Aquila would create "paralysis" in disaster assessment and prevention.

On Monday, a court sentenced the group to six years in prison for failing to warn of the magnitude 6.3 quake which hit L'Aquila in the early hours of April 6, 2009, killing 308 people and devastating the medieval city.

The verdict has caused indignation among scientists around the world, who have warned it will make experts extremely reluctant to express an opinion in public about the likelihood of such events occurring in future.

The agency said it was "easy to imagine the effect of this incident on all those asked to assume responsibility in these sectors which are considered among the pillars of a modern civil protection service."

The sentence would not just affect seismological forecasting, it said, but could also deter other experts from offering opinions such as building safety assessments given by inspectors after the Emilia Romagna earthquakes this year.

The statement from the Civil Protection agency came after the heads of the government disaster assessment body at the center of the case resigned, saying it was no longer possible to carry on their work.

The head of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, Luciano Maiani, former president Giuseppe Zamberletti and vice president Mauro Rosi said the convictions had made it impossible to continue their work.

The seven convicted on Monday were all members of the Commission.

Monday's case related to a meeting of the Commission on March 31, 2009 at which the scientists gave what prosecutors called "incomplete, imprecise and contradictory" statements about the risk of a major earthquake.

"A MEDIA OPERATION"

Prosecutors accepted it was impossible to forecast earthquakes with any accuracy but said the Commission had given an overly reassuring picture of the situation facing L'Aquila when the earthquake struck.

In the months preceding the meeting, dozens of lower level tremors had hit the region, stoking fears that a bigger shock could be on the way and the meeting was intended to inform the public of the situation.

At the heart of the issue is the kind of cautious language, hedged with qualifications, that is typical when scientists talk about uncertain events in the future but which does not always translate well into public information announcements.

A wiretapped conversation between the then head of the Civil Protection agency Guido Bertolaso and another official published on the website of the La Repubblica daily on Tuesday underlined the potential for misunderstanding.

The wiretap, made by police investigating a separate case, showed that Bertolaso wanted the scientists to send a reassuring message to the public.

"It's more a media operation, you understand," Bertolaso is heard telling the other official. "...it's not that we are worried or concerned, it's because we want to calm people down and instead of you or I talking, we'll get the biggest scientists in seismology to talk," he said.

Behind the controversy over the conviction of the scientists, commentators have also pointed to the wider issue of disaster preparedness in Italy, one of the most earthquake-prone regions in Europe.

Authorities have sometimes seemed more willing to issue soothing statements than to address longstanding problems such as illegal construction and poor urban planning which have often exacerbated the deadly impact of disasters such as earthquakes and severe floods.

(Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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