ROME, Oct. 22 (Xinhua) -- An Italian court on Monday sentenced seven officials and government-appointed scientists to six years each in jail for failing to sufficiently warn residents before a strong earthquake which killed more than 300 people in the central town of L'Aquila in 2009.
The seven, all members of the Italian National Commission for Major Risks, were accused of giving "inexact, incomplete and contradictory information" in their evaluation of the danger.
The case especially focused on a sequence of tremors hitting the area for months preceding the 6.3-magnitude shock which, according to prosecutors, should have been grounds for the government-appointed experts not to underestimate the risk of a major earthquake.
The prosecutors said the experts met on March 31, 2009 in L'Aquila to examine rumblings that had alarmed residents for months. In a memo, the experts concluded that it was "unlikely" that there would be a major quake, though it stressed that the possibility could not be ruled out. One week later on April 6, the 6.3-magnitude quake struck, killing 308 people and leaving over 1,500 others injured and thousands of others homeless.
"I feel depressed, desperate. I thought I would have been acquitted, and still do not understand what I was accused of,"the former president of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV), Enzo Boschi, said after the trial.
Boschi and the six others were also banned for life from public office.
"The ruling cannot be anything but a topic of deep review in appeals," said defence attorney Marcello Petrelli.
The defence held that the guilty verdict will only discourage scientists from sharing their expertise with officials in the future.
"It will have huge repercussions on how things get done at the public level. No one will ever do anything again," said Petrelli.
The case, in which the defendants argued it is impossible to predict a quake, drew international attention with over 5,000 scientists all over the world signing a letter supporting those on trial.
The seven were also ordered by the judge to pay court costs and damages in a verdict that was defined by local media as "historic," being it the first time that members of a state institution were sentenced to prison.
The case has also sparked a debate in the scientific community, with some analysts warning the ruling would dissuade other experts from sharing their knowledge for fear of legal retribution, and others stressing the negligence and malpractice of the commission in handling the quake risk.
"This is the death of service provided by professors and by professionals to the State," said physicist Luciano Maiani, the current president of Italy's Committee on Major Risks.
The deadly shock in Abruzzo region on April 6 in 2009 also destroyed tens of thousands of ancient buildings in its historic center and caused an estimated economic loss of more than 10 billion euros (about 13 billion U.S. dollars).