The earthquake in L’Aquila in Italy that claimed the lives of 309 people and devastated the city was a terrible tragedy. But by sentencing Italian earthquake experts to six years for manslaughter, the Italian judicial system is compounding a natural tragedy by creating another that is entirely man-made.

On Monday, seven members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks were sentenced to six years in jail and ordered to pay costs and damages of almost €10 million.

Their crime was not to issue a safety warning following several weeks of frequent small tremors in the L’Aquila region. When a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck claiming hundreds of lives, the disaster was followed by pain, grief and the all-too-human response of seeking someone to blame.

In such an emotionally charged atmosphere, it is easy to have sympathy with the victims and the family and friends left behind. It is not easy to have any sympathy for the justice of these charges.

People such as Professor Calvi, one of those sentenced, have dedicated their lives to teaching others about earthquakes; mitigating the risks of disaster; and working on post-earthquake responses at sites across the world, including L’Aquila.

Even if the Commission’s judgement were entirely wrong in this case – and in fact many seismologists around the world have already argued they would not have issued heightened risk warnings on the basis of the same evidence – this sentence cannot be right.

It sets a chilling precedent for every scientist. Not just those predicting earthquakes, but meteorologists, physicists, chemists or indeed any scientist working in any discipline where the exact result of every single action cannot be predicted with certainty.

Who now will take responsibility for forecasting the risk of storms or floods or earthquakes when to make such a prediction is to risk your freedom? And where is the justice in denying potential victims of the benefit of scientific expertise as we learn more about our environment in the future? Indeed, how will we drive learning if we cannot safely share ideas, theories and opinions in public?

Science is based on the willingness of a great many people to state their opinion freely and fairly on the basis of the evidence.

Every time a scientist does that, they run the risk of being proved wrong. They should not run the risk of being jailed for honest opinions based on evidence.

The verdict announced on Monday could not be more wrong. We hope the convictions will be quashed on appeal.

In the meantime, it is up to everyone in the scientific community and the wider world to speak out against the alarming implications of this verdict.