A decision to jail a group of Italian scientists today could lead to earthquake experts being too afraid to publically share their findings, a New Zealand structural engineer says.
Six scientists and a government official were sentenced to six years in prison today after an Italian court found them guilty of negligence and malpractice in evaluating the danger and keeping the city of L'Aquila informed of the risks before the 2009 earthquake which killed more than 300 people.
The seven were all members of a body called the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks.
The scientists, Franco Barberi, Enzo Boschi, Giulio Selvaggi, Gian Michele Calvi, Claudio Eva and Mauro Dolce as well as Bernardo De Bernardis - a senior official in the Civil Protection Authority - were convicted of criminal manslaughter and causing criminal injury.
Structural engineer Stefano Pampanin, from the New Zealand Society of Earthquake Engineering, who works in Christchurch and knows some of the scientists facing prison, told TV ONE's Close Up programme that earthquake experts have been "nervous" of the implications of the decision ever since the seven Italians were charged a year ago.
He described the case as "politically driven", and said the idea of something similar happening in New Zealand following the devastating Christchurch earthquake in 2011 "would have been a laugh".
"The comparison to New Zealand practice would be basically to think that a scientist should go to jail for not being able to predict the February aftershock after the September event and the Boxing Day event, and nobody ever thought about it," he said.
Pampanin said the implications of the decision by the Italian court could leave scientists in fear of speaking publically about their findings, saying they "can't avoid" holding the thought in their minds.
"Just imagine the war from scientists saying 'no thank you, we're not available, we will just not be doing our job any more, which is to learn and disseminate knowledge, because the consequences of that are going to be legal consequences for us and our family', it just doesn't make any sense."
He described the scientists as internationally renowned.
"To face this sort of attack, which is hardly technical, is offensive and has already destroyed their reputation, professional and private," he said.
"I don't' think this is what our community should be aiming for."
Prosecutors argued that the six scientists and a government official gave incomplete, imprecise and contradictory information just days before the deadly 6.3 magnitude quake.
Judge Marco Billi agreed, and today jailed them for six years.
In the months preceding the deadly L'Aquila earthquake, the historic city experienced a number of low-level tremors, or foreshocks, which prosecutors said should have warned experts not to underestimate the risk of a major shock.
Today GNS Science waded into the debate surrounding the controversial decision, saying that "the communication of risk and uncertainty is a challenging area for scientists".
"But to suggest that repeated small earthquakes in the area of L'Aquila were favourable because they unloaded seismic stress and reduced the chance of a big quake was unwise in our view," said GNS Science.
"This, and other comments from officials, apparently inhibited many people from taking actions that might have saved their lives."
It added that government officials "could arguably have done more to prepare city infrastructure and the population for a large earthquake".
GNS Science said the Italian court's decision was "a complex matter involving legal, scientific, emotional and political aspects".
"It is also concerned with a very specific set of circumstances," it added.
"We understand that the court case was not about failing to predict an earthquake. Most people understand this is not possible with current scientific knowledge."
GNS Science said the Italian case was really about the ineffective communication of science.
"Scientists must weigh up the evidence carefully and be cautious about the possibility of saying too little and delivering a false sense of security that could cause complacency, or delivering a false alarm that could cause panic," it said.
The case has drawn condemnation from international bodies including the American Geophysical Union, which said the risk of litigation may deter scientists from advising governments or even working in seismology and seismic risk assessments.
"The issue here is about miscommunication of science, and we should not be putting responsible scientists who gave measured, scientifically accurate information in prison," Richard Walters of Oxford University's Department of Earth Sciences said.
"This sets a very dangerous precedent and I fear it will discourage other scientists from offering their advice on natural hazards and trying to help society in this way."
Defence lawyers for the jailed Italian scientists and the official said they were left dumbfounded by the decision.
"I still have the same opinion I always had and that has been confirmed with this debate (in the courtroom), there are no elements of responsibility," counsel for Calvi Gianmichele, Alessamdra Stefano said.
"We will have to wait and see the motivation for this decision."
But for the families of the 309 people who died during the quake, it was the result they were looking for.
"Now they will start to take their responsibilities a bit more seriously," Claudia Carosi, who lost her sister, said.
"We only wanted this because we do not want a vendetta. Obviously my sister will never return, she won't return today nor ever again."
The seven Italians sent to prison today have indicated they will be appealing the decision.