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Italian Seismologists Charged With Manslaughter for Not Predicting 2009 Quake

Italy Quake 2009

April 6, 2009: An aerial photo provided by the Italian Police shows the debris of a collapsed building in an area near L'Aquila, central Italy, after a powerful earthquake shook central Italy. (AP Photo/Italian Police)

Italian government officials have accused the country's top seismologist of manslaughter, after failing to predict a natural disaster that struck Italy in 2009, a massive devastating earthquake that killed 308 people.

A shocked spokesman for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) likened the accusations to a witch hunt.

"It has a medieval flavor to it -- like witches are being put on trial," the stunned spokesman told FoxNews.com.

Enzo Boschi, the president of Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV), will face trial along with six other scientists and technicians, after failing to predict the future and the impending disaster.

Earthquakes are, of course, nearly impossible to predict, seismologists say. In fact, according to the website for the USGS, no major quake has ever been predicted successfully. 

"Neither the USGS nor Caltech nor any other scientists have ever predicted a major earthquake," reads a statement posted on the USGS website. "They do not know how, and they do not expect to know how any time in the foreseeable future."

John Vidale, a Washington State seismologist and professor at the University of Washington, agreed that earthquake forecasting is simply impossible.

"We're not able to predict earthquakes very well at all," he told LiveScience.

"One problem is, we don't know how much stress it takes to break a fault," Vidale told the site. "Second we still don't know how much stress is down there. All we can do is measure how the ground is deforming."

Not knowing either of these factors makes it pretty tough to figure out when stresses will get to the point of a rupture, and an earth-shaking quake, LiveScience explained.

The seven scientists were placed under investigation almost a year ago, according to a news story on the website of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) -- the world's largest general-science society and a leading voice for the interests of scientists worldwide.

Alan Leschner, chief executive of AAAS, said his group wrote a letter to the Italian government last year -- clearly, to no avail.

"Whoever made these accusations misunderstands the nature of science, the nature of the discipline and how difficult it is to predict anything with the surety they expect," Leschner told FoxNews.com.

The case could have a "chilling effect" on scientists, he noted.

"It reflects a lack of understanding about what science can and can't do," he said. "And frankly, it will have an effect of intimidating scientists ... This just feels like either scapegoating or an attempt to intimidate a community. This really seems inappropriate."

Judge Giuseppe Romano Gargarella said that the seven defendants had supplied "imprecise, incomplete and contradictory information," in a press conference following a meeting held by the committee 6 days before the quake, reported the Italian daily Corriere della Sera

In doing so, they "thwarted the activities designed to protect the public," the judge said.

Boschi's lawyer, Marcello Melandri, has been taking the news badly, reported the AAAS story. He was particularly stunned because -- despite of the near impossibility of predicting earthquakes Boshi had been indicating that a large earthquake would be coming, though he did not say when.

Melandri told the AAAS that Boschi never sought to reassure the population of L'Aquila that there was no threat. On the contrary, the INGV head made it clear that "at some point it is probable that there will be a big earthquake."

In addition to Boschi, those facing trial are:

  *   Franco Barberi, committee vice president;
  *   Bernardo De Bernardinis, at the time vice president of Italy's Civil Protection Department and now president of the country's Institute for Environmental Protection and Research;
  *   Giulio Selvaggi, director of the National Earthquake Center;
  *   Gian Michele Calvi, director of the European Center for Training and Research in Earthquake Engineering;
  *   Claudio Eva, an earth scientist at the University of Genoa; and
  *   Mauro Dolce, director of the office of seismic risk at the Civil Protection Department.