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Spanish air controllers refuse to answer prosecutors

Air traffic controllers who shut down Spain’s airspace in a 24-hour wildcat strike refused Thursday to answer prosecutors investigating possible sedition.

Prosecutors are investigating air traffic controllers’ actions after they called in sick en masse December 3, hitting the flights of an estimated 300,000 travellers on a holiday weekend.

Spain’s government forced them to return to work the next day by declaring a 15-day state of alert, putting the military in command and threatening jail for those who refused.

It was the first state of alert in Spain since the 1975 death of dictator General Francisco Franco.

They could face jail terms of up to eight years if charged and convicted of sedition for collectively abandoning their posts, an action the government has compared to doctors leaving a hospital.

The first 12 controllers to go before prosecutors Thursday refused to testify at a Madrid provincial court, arguing they should be heard by a military court because the military was in charge, Madrid public prosecutor Eduardo Esteban said.

The public prosecutor said a military court had nothing to do with the case, however, because the charges related to events that took place before the state of alert was declared.

“The public prosecutor’s office will continue to investigate what happened on December 3rd and 4th,” he added.

Spain’s airport authority AENA has also opened disciplinary proceedings against 442 controllers.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero testified to parliament that he would extend the state of alert if necessary to prevent any repeat of the mass controllers’ walkout.

“We will not be in a state of alert one day more nor one day less than required so that this country’s citizens can travel without being blackmailed by air traffic controllers,” he said.

Zapatero defended his decision to call the state of alert.

“No-one, neither individually nor collectively, can take the citizens as a whole as hostages to their claims,” he added.

“The government will not hesitate to use, without ignoring the requirements of proportionality, all the instruments of rule of law to end situations such the one we experienced at the weekend.”

The prime minister said 190 air force officials had been deployed to Spain’s air traffic control towers and more than 2,000 police dispatched to airports to boost security for passengers.

Air traffic controllers had acted in “open rebellion” against the rule of law, he said. “It was an affront to the constitutional order and as such it had to be confronted.”

Centre-right daily El Mundo said Monday the government hoped to extend the state of alert for two months so as to train military personnel to take over the jobs of dismissed controllers.

The government has accused air traffic controllers of defending “intolerable privileges”.

According to the transport ministry, there are 2,300 air traffic controllers in Spain earning an average 200,000 euros a year.

In February the government cut back controllers’ overtime to a maximum 80 hours a year, slicing into paypackets that had bulged with overtime pay of two-to-three times the normal rate of 117 euros an hour.

Previously, controllers had earned an average of more than 300,000 euros, with 135 of them taking home more than 600,000 euros a year and 713 between 360,000 and 540,000 euros a year, ministry figures showed.