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L'AQUILA, Italy (AP) — An Italian court convicted seven scientists and experts of manslaughter on Monday for failing to adequately warn citizens before an earthquake struck central Italy in 2009, killing more than 300 people.
The court in L'Aquila also sentenced the defendants to six years in prison. Each one is a member of the national Great Risks Commission.
In Italy, convictions aren't definitive until after at least one level of appeals, so it is unlikely any of the defendants would face jail immediately.
The defendants were accused in the indictment of giving "inexact, incomplete and contradictory information" about whether small tremors felt by L'Aquila residents in the weeks and months before the April 6, 2009, quake should have constituted grounds for a quake warning. The 6.3-magnitude quake killed 308 people in and around the medieval town and forced survivors to live in tent camps for months.
At the heart of the case was whether the government-appointed experts gave an overly reassuring picture of the risks facing the town, which contained many ancient and fragile buildings and which had been partially destroyed three times by earthquakes over the centuries.
Earthquakes mark the history of L'Aquila, as the city is situated partially on an ancient lake-bed that amplifies seismic activity.
On December 3, 1315, the city was struck by an earthquake which seriously damaged the San Francesco Church. Another earthquake struck on January 22, 1349, killing about 800 people. Other earthquakes struck in 1452, then on November 26, 1461, and again in 1501 and 1646. On February 3, 1703 a major earthquake struck the town. More than 3.000 people died and almost all the churches collapsed; Rocca Calascio, the highest fortress in Europe was also ruined by this event, yet the town survived. L'Aquila was then repopulated by decision of Pope Clement XI. The town was rocked by earthquake again in 1706. The most serious earthquake in the history of the town struck on July 31, 1786, when more than 6.000 people died. On June 26, 1958 an earthquake of 5.0 magnitude struck the town.
There may have been no charges leveled at the scientists at all if it were not for a press conference held after the meeting. According to Nature, during the press conference, the panel's non-scientist member, a government official who was also convicted of manslaughter, told the press and the public that the earthquakes the area had been feeling posed no threat, and went so far as to joke that everyone should relax and drink a nice glass of local red wine.