Seven scientists and other experts were indicted on manslaughter charges Wednesday for allegedly failing to sufficiently warn residents before a devastating earthquake that killed more than 300 people in central Italy in 2009.
Defence lawyers condemned the charges, saying it's impossible to predict earthquakes. Seismologists have long concurred, saying the technology doesn't exist to predict a quake and that no major temblor has ever been foretold.
Judge Giuseppe Romano Gargarella ordered the members of the national government's Great Risks commission, which evaluates potential for natural disasters, to go on trial in L'Aquila on Sept. 20.
Italian media quoted the judge as saying the defendants "gave 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.
Specifically, prosecutors focused on a memo issued after a March 31, 2009 meeting of the Great Risks commission which was called because of mounting concerns about the months of seismic activity in the region.
According to the commission's memo, issued one week before the big quake, the experts concluded that it was "improbable" that there would be a major quake though it added that one couldn't be excluded.
Afterward, members of the commission gave reassuring interviews to local media stressing the impossibility of predicting quakes and that even six months worth of low-magnitude temblors was not unusual in the highly seismic region and didn't mean a big one was coming.
In one now-infamous interview included in the prosecutors' case, commission member Bernardo De Bernardis of the national civil protection department 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."
Such a reassuring verdict by commission members "persuaded the victims to stay at home," La Repubblica newspaper quoted the indictment as saying.
The 6.3-magnitude quake killed 308 people in and around the medieval town, which was largely reduced to rubble. Thousands of survivors lived in tent camps or temporary housing for months.
Defence lawyers contend that since quakes can't be predicted, the accusations that the scientists and civil protection experts on the commission should have sounded an alarm that a big quake was coming make no sense.