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“Pursuing legal action against members of the seismological community after an earthquake is unprecedented and reflects a misunderstanding of the science of earthquakes,” the president of the Seismological Society of America, Rick Aster wrote President Giorgio Napolitano.

Efforts should instead focus on working to better communicate earthquake risks to the public and boosting preparedness by retrofitting old and dangerous buildings, he said.

A lawyer representing families of the victims denied that science was on trial.

“The science is not on trial here, as they say, this is not the trial of Galileo Galilei, but it is a trial to judge if there were responsibilities, mistakes, or incorrect behavior by those scientists who held the meeting in L’Aquila before the earthquake happened,” said lawyer Wania della Vigna.

Many of the structures that collapsed in the 2009 quake were not properly built to standards for a quake-prone area like the central Apennine region of Abruzzo. Among the buildings which cracked and crumbled was L’Aquila’s hospital, just as it was struggling to treat about 1,500 injured.

Nobody inside the hospital, which was built in the 1970s, was killed or injured in the quake.

Manslaughter charges are not unusual in Italy for natural disasters such as quakes, but they have previously focused on violations of building codes in seismic regions.

In 2009, for example, an appeals court convicted five people in the 2002 quake-triggered collapse of a school in southern San Giuliano di Puglia that killed 27 children _ including the town’s entire first-grade class _ and a teacher. Prosecutors had alleged that shoddy construction contributed to the collapse of the school.

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Alicia Chang in Los Angeles contributed to this report.