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NOUMÉA COURT HEARS CASE AGAINST UNION LEADERS Strike, picket ruling expected at end of month

NOUMÉA, New Caledonia (Oceania Flash, June 17, 2009) – A court in New Caledonia’s capital Nouméa has announced it would hand down its ruling on strikes and pickets carried out by pro-independence USTKE union on June 29, after one day of hearings took place on Tuesday this week in a particularly tense atmosphere.

USTKE leader Gérard Jodar and 27 other co-unionists and sympathisers are facing charges including damages to public property and causing disruption to air traffic.

The charges relate to civil unrest on May 28, when USTKE members forced their way onto the tarmac of the Nouméa domestic airport, Magenta.

Jodar and other USTKE member then proceeded to board an ATR-42 Air Calédonie plane.

They were eventually dislodged by riot police, who shot teargas and deafening grenades.

Jodar and several other union members briefly appeared earlier this month before a local Court, which granted Jodar bail on condition, including a restraining order that prevents him from approaching Nouméa’s domestic airport of Magenta.

Since then, tensions have remained high in New Caledonia as the Kanak and Exploited Workers Union (USTKE) agreed to suspend a disruptive general strike movement, but so far failed to agree with domestic airline Air Calédonie on a permanent settlement to the strike.

Last week, USTKE launched a two-day general strike, targeting key economic and public services such as fuel depots, schools, public transport, the public broadcaster RFO and several private companies.

The union said its strike was motivated by the domestic airline’s refusal to pay its members for some two months of strike at Air Calédonie.

The movement started in April this year, originally over differences regarding the dismissal of one airline employee.

USTKE has since demanded that its Air Calédonie members be paid for the days of strike.

On Tuesday, the small Nouméa court was under tight security placed by the French High commission, which had decided to declare the tribunal’s surroundings a no-go zone.

The Public Prosecutor, at the end of Tuesday, announced he requested 15 months of jail for Jodar and sentences ranging from ten to twelve months for those of his closest associates who already had a criminal record.

Two demonstrations at the same time

Meanwhile, in downtown Nouméa, two groups had gathered, one in support of Jodar and USTKE, the other, up to five hundred persons, in support of Air Calédonie and demanding heavy sentences against Jodar and his union.

Law enforcement authorities managed to keep the two demonstrations separate and to avoid any potentially violent encounter.

During the Tuesday hearings, USTKE’s lawyer Laurent Aguila pleaded in substance that there was no intention or premeditation on the part of USTKE members who were present on May 28 at Magenta airport to disrupt the traffic and law and order.

He and USTKE members who fronted the court all followed more or less the same line: the May 28 action was supposed to be a peaceful one, but it went wrong because of the violence of police.

They further argued that if two Air Calédonie ATR planes were boarded by Jodar and others, it was because they wanted to protect themselves from police and that the aircraft’s doors were already open.

Similarly, the accused said they had entered the domestic airport tarmac through holes in the fences that were already there.

Prosecutor Jean Jacques Deswarte alleged in response that USTKE militants were sent there deliberately and that their presence was the direct result of planned instructions from the union’s head.

Thinly-veiled threats

After his release earlier this month, Jodar, in an interview with the daily newspaper Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes, had made a thinly-veiled threat that if negotiations with Air Calédonie did not conclude to the union’s satisfaction, then New Caledonia could see "events we have not seen here since 1984".

This was a direct reference to the quasi civil war independence-related situation that had prevailed in the French Pacific territory in the mid-1980s.

Commenting on the recent domestic airport incidents, on May 28, French High Commissioner Yves Dassonville said last week that USTKE’s actions were no longer in the domain of union practices, but rather closer to the deeds of "bandits".

Dassonville also alleged that some explosive devices had been found onboard of the of the ATR Air Calédonie planes.

USTKE later retorted accusing the French government of attempting to "criminalise" USTKE and more generally union practices, in the public opinion.

General strike last week aborted

After two days of general strike, last week, Jodar announced the movement was suspended for the time being.

This followed talks between himself and the French High commissioner in New Caledonia, Yves Dassonville, as well as the newly-elected President of the local government, Philippe Gomès.

Emerging from the talks, Jodar said the atmosphere had been "courteous and serene".

He said the reason was that the mediating authority in New Caledonia, the local labour department, had come up with a draft agreement between USTKE and Air Calédonie that would permanently settle the strike.

While the content of the text was not publicly divulged, Jodar, on Thursday, called on the Labour department to sign it.

But Air Calédonie management have so far refused to do the same.

Its Chairman, pro-independence leader Nidoïsh Naisseline, is believed to have placed conditions to the settlement of the agreement, including one that would require the French State to compensate Air Calédonie if the company was to disburse payment for the striking workers.

Last week, Naisseline went further saying not one cent of public money would be paid, "directly or in a disguised manner", to the strikers and that he was now waiting for Jodar to be jailed before talks could resume between Air Calédonie and "other" USTKE leaders for a more permanent settlement to the crisis.

Naisseline also said he believed he was "tricked" by the mediators from the Labour Department.

In one of New Caledonia’s Loyalty islands, Maré (Northeast of the main island of Grande Terre), last week, tensions have also gone up one notch and serious incidents have been narrowly avoided when a group of traditional chiefs close to Naisseline (who is also from the same island) undertook to form a "custom police" and forcibly remove pickets placed near the small domestic airport.

Some of the picketers were assaulted.

The local chiefs said through a spokesman they could not tolerate that Naisseline should be "insulted" and therefore, their actions were, in part, aiming at cleaning" this public insult.

"They have the right to strike, but not to insult a big chief", the spokesman told local media.

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