Italian Official Added to List of Defendants in Earthquake Trial

The former head of Italy's civil protection department, Guido Bertolaso, is to be investigated for manslaughter alongside seven scientists and technicians who are currently on trial for allegedly having carried out a superficial seismic risk analysis and giving a false sense of security to people in the central Italian town of L'Aquila only days before a deadly earthquake struck and killed 308 people.

Bertolaso was implicated by a recording of a phone conversation between himself and a regional civil protection officer that took place a week before the earthquake. In it Bertolaso explains that the experts were to meet up "not because we are frightened and worried" by a series of tremors that had been striking the region for several months but because "we want to reassure the public." The prosecution alleges that it was unjustified reassurances provided by the seven who, it is argued, underestimated the threat of a major quake, which caused many people in L'Aquila and the surrounding area to remain indoors and perish in the early hours of 6 April 2009 rather than go outside.

The experts were full or acting members of a government advisory body known as the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks that met in L'Aquila on 31 March 2009 to discuss the ongoing seismic "swarm"—a magnitude-4.1 tremor had shook the town the day before. The meeting took place the day after the call between Bertolaso and official Daniela Stati, in which the former said that the meeting was to be "more of a media operation".

During the conversation, Bertolaso also told Stati that his second-in-command, Bernardo de Bernardinis, would call her to arrange the meeting in order to "shut up any imbecile, to calm inferences, worries, etc." This is thought to be a reference to Gioacchino Giuliani, a technician at the National Institute of Nuclear Physics near L'Aquila who it is reported had alarmed people in a nearby town after (falsely) predicting that a major earthquake would strike.

After underlining to Stati the importance of prudence when dealing with earthquakes, and in particular that one should never state that there won't be further tremors, Bertolaso then went on to tell her what the experts were to say: "It is a normal situation, these phenomena [the tremors] happen, it's better that there are 100 magnitude-4 tremors rather than silence because 100 tremors release energy and there won't ever be the damaging tremor."

The following day, ahead of the meeting, de Bernardinis, who is one of the seven indicted but is not himself an earthquake expert, told a reporter that the tremors posed "no danger" and that "the scientific community continues to confirm to me that in fact it is a favorable situation, that is to say a continuous discharge of energy." In fact, seismologists know that earthquakes tend to cluster in time and space and so the occurrence of smaller tremors tends to increase the chances that a larger quake will take place, even if the absolute probability of such an event remains low.

Bertolaso was added to the list of people under investigation by the L'Aquila prosecutors following the release last week of the recording of the phone call on the Web site of the newspaper La Repubblica. It is possible, according to news reports, that the case against Bertolaso will be incorporated into the trial of the seven commission members, although this would be difficult given that the trial is already under way. The trial started last September, but with nearly 300 witnesses scheduled to testify it is likely to last until at least the autumn.