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COLOMBIA: Justice on Strike

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, Sep 3 2008 (IPS) - Some 34,000 judicial sector employees in Colombia began an indefinite strike Wednesday, demanding labour stability, the enforcement of a new salary scheme, and guarantees of independence for the courts.

Monday’s devastating car-bomb attack on the Palace of Justice in the western city of Cali was just one more reason for the protest.

“All judicial proceedings are being suspended…in the civil, administrative, labour and criminal spheres,” announced Fabio Hernández, president of the National Association of Judicial Branch Employees (Asonal Judicial).

Eighty percent of the sector’s 43,000 workers are going on strike, “which will be general and will affect all jurisdictions,” although “we will continue to attend extremely serious cases,” he added.

The Asonal Judicial presented a list of grievances and demands in November 2007, but “the government has kept silent,” said Tarsicio Mora, president of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), Colombia’s main trade union confederation, of which the Asonal Judicial is a member.

“The avenue of dialogue has been exhausted. The workers have no other option than to protest,” said Mora, who added that “it is clear that there is no dialogue here with the social sectors, and even less in the case of the labour union movement.”

The Asonal Judicial is demanding a new salary scheme, as established by a 1992 law that has only been partially implemented and enforced.

Another problem, said Mora, is that public employees have no labour stability, because they are hired under fixed-term contracts that may or may not be renewed at any given time. “There are civil servants who have been working for more than 20 years as temporary public employees, even though that is illegal,” he stressed.

Labour instability affects more than 18,000 judicial branch employees. Many have worked for a decade or more under fixed-term contracts that must be periodically renewed. Currently, 4,000 judges and other judicial branch workers are facing the possibility of losing their jobs in December.

Apecides Alvis, president of the Confederación de Trabajadores de Colombia (CTC), Colombia’s oldest central union, founded in 1936, said that reducing the number of judges or appointing new ones would require a period of adaptation for the proceedings presently under way, which “would clearly generate great difficulties.” In response to a question from IPS, Asonal Judicial president Hernández said the situation “undoubtedly” affects the independence of the justice system, “because the mechanism of temporary contracts is used to pressure judicial branch employees to adopt certain kinds of decisions at a given moment.”

That is a particularly touchy aspect at a time when those most responsible for the massacres and killings committed in Colombia’s decades-long civil war have come under the scrutiny of the justice system.

Colombia has been caught in the grip of an armed conflict since the mid-1960s, when the leftist guerrilla groups rose up in arms. In the 1980s, far-right paramilitary militias emerged to fight the insurgents, in alliance with government forces.

“The country needs investigations and clear, prompt sentences in these questions – ‘para-politics’ and paramilitary activity – that have shaken Colombian society,” said Hernández.

He was referring to the legal investigations and prosecutions of legislators for their alleged ties with the paramilitary groups, which are blamed for the lion’s share of the atrocities committed in Colombia’s civil war, and that have partially demobilised as a result of controversial negotiations with the rightwing administration of Álvaro Uribe.

Nearly all of the roughly 70 lawmakers under arrest or investigation are Uribe allies.

Hernández added that “society needs responses to the demands of the victims and the population at large – answers that are in line with the magnitude of the crimes committed,” many of which are classified as war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“If the public employees who have this delicate mission are not even sure of their jobs, it is very easy to pressure or manipulate them,” said the head of the Asonal Judicial.

“We have demanded that the government ensure their labour stability, given the experience, performance and responsibility level of these workers,” said Hernández.

In fact, respect for the independence of the judiciary is the first point on the list of demands presented by the Asonal Judicial.

“A very serious situation has arisen from the meddling of the executive branch in judicial affairs, and from the constant aggression,” he said, referring to Uribe’s repeated verbal attacks on the magistrates handling the cases against dozens of members of Congress who are implicated in what has been dubbed the “para-politics” or “para-gate” scandal.

“Colombia’s judicial branch is facing a critical situation,” because the president “is constantly lashing out at the highest echelons of the judiciary, particularly regarding the work of the criminal chamber of the Supreme Court in the ‘para-politics’ investigations,” said Hernández.

He complained that the attacks “by the president and the executive branch as a whole have been systematic and organised, aimed at delegitimising, at any cost, the judicial investigations” in these cases.

The Asonal Judicial’s list of demands calls for “the establishment of clear mechanisms for guaranteeing respect for the independence and autonomy of the judicial branch, a normal aspect of any state of law,” he added.

Last week, Argentine jurist Luis Moreno Ocampo, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), raised red flags by making a three-day visit to Colombia.

In the scenario of Colombia’s internal armed conflict, where “we have an enormous number of crimes and a massive number of criminals,” the criteria being followed is “to go after the people who may be considered among those most responsible,” Moreno Ocampo said in Bogotá.

Against this backdrop, a car-bomb went off early Monday near the Palace of Justice in Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city, killing four people and injuring 20.

Ten of the 18 stories of one of the two courtroom building towers were totally destroyed by the blast, including some 200 offices and the computers in them, while the paper files and archives were also damaged.

More than 500 other buildings were damaged by the explosion as well, and the city government declared a state of emergency on Tuesday. Even without a strike, a 10-day suspension of legal proceedings was declared in that city. On Wednesday, the courthouse was surrounded by white carnations, and judges were picking their way through the ruins, to see what could be salvaged.

President Uribe, Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos and national police chief General Óscar Naranjo blamed the bombing on the “Manuel Cepeda” column of the leftwing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

But “it was not the Manuel Cepeda column. That has been confirmed,” an analyst who closely follows the war with the FARC told IPS.

The perpetrators must be sought in the drug trafficking gangs that are active in the region, said the expert, with the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, a think tank in Bogotá that focuses on peace and development issues.

The president of the Asonal Judicial said that “we were really struck by the fact that this attack occurred just prior to our strike, which was announced over a month ago.”

“We prefer to wait and see what the investigation reveals,” before reaching any conclusions, said Hernández.

But “if this was an attempt at intimidating judicial branch employees, they have wasted their time and their criminal act. Because we are going to continue with this movement, which we see as necessary to improve the administration of justice in Colombian society and, of course, the well-being of the judicial sector workers,” he said.

Mora, of the CUT, said the judicial branch “has been especially beleaguered and harassed, and has been hit hard by the war. More than 26 judges and other judicial sector employees have been killed,” including three so far in 2008, he noted.

The country’s trade union confederations and a number of social organisations have announced a Sept. 11 demonstration in support of the Supreme Court.

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