Spain to Seek Prison Time for Striking Air Controllers

December 9, 2010

MADRID — Spain’s attorney general said Thursday that he would recommend prison sentences of as long as eight years for air traffic controllers found guilty of staging an illegal strike that shut down airports around the country last weekend.

Underlining the authorities’ determination to set a strong precedent and avoid any repeat of such wildcat action, Attorney General Cándido Conde-Pumpido also insisted that, while the strike’s leadership would most likely face the toughest sentencing, he would seek terms of at least three years for all those responsible for a chaotic weekend that affected about 650,000 passengers.

“This is a very serious crime,” he told reporters. “We’re talking about paralyzing an essential public service.”

Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero explained before Parliament his government’s decision to call an unprecedented state of alarm as a response to the strike, which he called “open rebellion against the state of law” and “a calamity.”

The state of alarm, which was decreed Saturday and has left Spain’s air traffic control under military supervision, is set to last 15 days. Mr. Zapatero, however, did not rule out prolonging it beyond that deadline, which could help avoid further disruption over the Christmas vacation period.

“What we are judging today is neither a labor conflict nor a strike, but an act of disobedience and a challenge to the democratic order,” Mr. Zapatero said. “The state can respond to a blackmail situation.”

The controllers’ main labor union presented an appeal to the Supreme Court on Thursday against the decision to decree a state of alarm. The union has apologized to Spaniards for the strike but also maintained that the government has been using excessive and unconstitutional means in a yearlong dispute to force them to work longer and for less money.

The first group of 12 controllers summoned by the attorney general’s office in Madrid refused to provide evidence Thursday, arguing that, given the military’s intervention, they should be heard instead by a military judge.

The government’s disputed measures include raising controllers’ normal working hours to 1,670 hours a year, from 1,200 hours, and cutting their average annual salary to €200,000, or $263,000, from €350,000. In comparison, German controllers earn on average €150,000 a year, and British controllers €120,000.

Mr. Zapatero seems to have won widespread support for his tough response, and lawmakers from opposition parties broadly endorsed the military intervention.

Mariano Rajoy, leader of the Popular Party, the main opposition, did criticize the government for not resolving the labor dispute earlier. “Declaring the state of alarm amounts to a declaration of impotence,” Mr. Rajoy told Parliament.

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