Charges Dropped Against Scientists in Lecce Xylella Case

Researchers and officials who were charged in 2015 have been acquitted but are still blamed for omissions and mismanagement. Part of the investigation will be continued by prosecutors in Bari.

Olive trees in Salento
May. 22, 2019
By Ylenia Granitto
Olive trees in Salento

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The case to estab­lish respon­si­bil­ity for the spread­ing of Xylella fas­tidiosa in Salento, Italy has been dismissed.

Prosecutors in Lecce filed charges against 10 indi­vid­u­als back in December 2015, accus­ing them of the spread­ing of a plant dis­ease, will­ful vio­la­tion of the pro­vi­sions on the envi­ron­ment, the com­mit­ting of fake mate­ri­als by offi­cials in pub­lic doc­u­ments, fraud­u­lent mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion and the destruc­tion or dis­fig­ure­ment of nat­ural beauty.

It is impos­si­ble to prove that unlaw­ful con­duct led the spread of the bac­terium.- Prosecutors in the case

However, inves­ti­ga­tors now say that it is not pos­si­ble to demon­strate the causal link between the spread of Xylella and the actions of the 10 suspects.

The judge for pre­lim­i­nary inves­ti­ga­tion, Alcide Maritati, granted the motion for dis­missal filed by the pros­e­cu­tors Elsa Valeria Mignone and Roberta Licci and issued a 44-page decree.

See Also: Xylella fas­tidiosa News

Based on the cur­rent sci­en­tific knowl­edge on Xylella, the inves­ti­ga­tors were forced to fol­low the test of cau­sa­tion adopted by the Italian courts in the cases of med­ical respon­si­bil­ity: to move for­ward with charges, it is nec­es­sary to con­clude with a very high degree of prob­a­bil­ity that the event could have been pre­vented by fol­low­ing the pro­ce­dures adopted by Italian law.

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Prosecutors in the case were unable to prove that if the indi­vid­u­als had fol­lowed all the cor­rect pro­to­cols, the dis­ease would not have spread anyway.

It is impos­si­ble to prove that unlaw­ful con­duct led the spread of the bac­terium,” the pros­e­cu­tors wrote in their motion for dismissal.

Nevertheless, after a step-by-step descrip­tion of the inves­ti­ga­tions car­ried out with the help of the Carabinieri’s forestry and agri-food unit, the pros­e­cu­tors empha­sized in their con­clu­sions that they did find irreg­u­lar­ity, care­less­ness, and mis­con­duct” on the part of those who were under investigation.

Prosecutors said that there were delays in offi­cial com­mu­ni­ca­tions sent to the author­i­ties regard­ing both the des­ic­ca­tion of Salento’s olive trees and the dis­cov­ery of the symp­toms of Xylella in the ter­ri­tory. Acts of neg­li­gence regard­ing the sam­pling of test mate­r­ial and the mis­man­age­ment of the exper­i­men­tal fields were also reported.

The decree also con­tains con­fi­den­tial con­ver­sa­tions obtained from emails that were found on seized com­put­ers belong­ing to the suspects.

In these emails, inves­ti­ga­tors found evi­dence of the pre­pon­der­ance of eco­nomic inter­est, that is to say the prospect of obtain­ing fund­ing for the exclu­sive ben­e­fit of the University of Bari, over the sci­en­tific research purpose.”

This ulte­rior motive would have clearly influ­enced the approach of the sus­pects to the issue at an early stage, even at the expense of the trans­parency of sci­en­tific research,” Maritati, the judge, wrote.

He also noted that atten­tion was paid to the impacts [of the dis­ease’s spread], in terms of the sci­en­tific rep­u­ta­tion [of those involved] and to the eco­nomic prospects in rela­tion to the man­age­ment of the phe­nom­e­non, which was then man­aged in sub­stan­tial monop­oly by the University of Bari and the lab­o­ra­to­ries asso­ci­ated with it.”

Lastly, the report reveals that the phe­nom­e­non of the rapid des­ic­ca­tion of olive trees in Salento dates back to the mid-2000s. However, a num­ber of sit­u­a­tions occurred in the fol­low­ing years, which led the pros­e­cu­tors to con­firm that ret­i­cence, omis­sions and deceit have affected the out­come of the investigation.”

Meanwhile, mea­sures to stem the spread of the out­break that were taken after­wards proved to be delayed, dis­jointed, and not in accord with a proper emer­gency management.”

The part of the pro­ceed­ing relat­ing to charges of irreg­u­lar­i­ties in the man­age­ment of pub­lic funds, fal­si­fi­ca­tion of doc­u­ments, and fraud­u­lent state­ments brought by the sus­pects, and the orga­ni­za­tions rep­re­sented by them, was trans­ferred to the prosecutor’s office of Bari.

In par­tic­u­lar, pros­e­cu­tors there will exam­ine the com­mu­ni­ca­tions made by the regional phy­tosan­i­tary obser­va­tory in October 2013, which offi­cially rec­og­nized the onset of Xylella in Italy for the first time, as well as doc­u­ments acquired at the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Bari.

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