These days, in Italy, the courts dominate the news. Six scientists (and one government official) were convicted of manslaughter on October 22 for failing to predict correctly the 2009 L’Aquila earthquakes. They may face up to six years in jail and pay damages of more than $10 million. Silvio Berlusconi, the world-famous and scandalous Italian prime minister who served from 1994 to 1995, 2001 to 2006, and 2006 to 2008, was convicted on October 26, 2012 of fraud. The two verdicts immediately found global appeal and made the headlines of many newspapers for very different reasons. The first one has sparked a very crucial question — to what extent should scientists be held legally accountable for their judgment? The second owes much to the still staggering “fame” of Silvio Berlusconi and says a lot about the difficulties Italy will have to get past his controversial legacy.
The L’Aquila earthquake killed more than 300 people in 2009 and subsequently hosted the annual G8 summit as a show of solidarity. The seven accused people, six of them who are scientists from the Italian National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology and the other a member of the Civil Protection Agency, are accused of providing “inaccurate, incomplete, and contradictory information about the dangers of seismic activity undermining the protection of the population,” according to the prosecutors. In other words they are blamed for failing to alert the population and severely underestimating the magnitude of the earthquake. Though that may be a case of unprofessionalism, the sentence certainly seems severe and could set a dangerous precedent. Not only are earthquakes notoriously unpredictable and hard to detect, but there is simply no way seismology is a perfect, infallible science. There are no grounds for these scientists’ recommendations to be taken as truth. This may dissuade scientists from participating in public policy, endangering the population even more. In his Histories, Herodotus tells us that when a storm shattered the bridge that had just been built to cross the Hellespont, Xerxes had the engineers’ heads chopped off; the Italian judiciary is taking a leaf out of the old Persian tyrant’s playbook.
Silvio Berlusconi also had his own problems with the law these days. A man of many identities — tycoon, Prime Minister, criminal, owner of the AC Milan soccer club — he is an extremely famous personality and his behavior hasn’t always reflected well on Italy. And his alleged “bunga bunga” sex parties don’t help much.
Last Friday, Berlusconi was convicted of tax fraud and sentenced to four years in jail, since then reduced to a single year. This is not his first judicial nuisance; he has also been accused throughout the years of false accounting, corruption, bribery and perjury. However, he has also benefited from an extremely clement justice; he has so far always escaped conviction because of expired statutes of limitations or even, in 2006, because of a retroactive amnesty. Though there is little to no chance that he will actually serve jail time, Berlusconi faces a more daunting accusation: He is accused of paying for sex with an underage girl, Karima El Mahroug. The scandal has been christened “Ruby-gate,” after the girl’s stage name. Berlusconi is rumored to have covered the whole story by personally intervening with the police and telling them she was the niece of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Many of his detractors argue that Berlusconi has entered politics simply in order to advance his own business interests and shield himself from the law. Whether this is true or not, the media coverage Berlusconi still gets shows that Italy will long bear the burden of his presence. That he can still threaten to bring down the Monti government and play the kingmaker by withdrawing his support shows to what extent his legacy will haunt Italian politics.