Angered by cuts, judges hit Greece where it hurts

Angered by cuts, judges hit Greece where it hurts

ATHENS - Agence France-Presse
Angered by cuts, judges hit Greece where it hurts

EPA Photo

After three straight years of slashing the salaries of civil servants, police officers and teachers, the Greek government has finally found an adversary that can hit back: judges.

A tug-of-war between executive and judicial authorities has come to the fore after complaints by the government over adverse rulings that could affect the country’s reforms, which are a condition of bankruptcy-saving EU-IMF loans.

Since September, judges and prosecutors have staged rolling work stoppages to protest planned pay cuts, frustrating efforts to prosecute tax debtors. Court staff have also held walkouts during the same period.

Administrative judges last week decided to end their protest, but over a million trials have already been postponed as a result of the mobilization, according to news reports.

Earlier in December, a court in northern Greece temporarily blocked a government move to sideline local civil servants, part of nationwide efforts to reduce the state payroll and an integral part of the country’s fiscal reforms.

But the last straw for the government came when an Athens court overruled a 2011 emergency act by the Finance Ministry to collect property tax through electricity bills, a vital measure to increase state income.

‘All of us have a patriotic duty’

Cash-strapped Greek authorities were hoping to collect over 2 billion euros this year from this particular tax and Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras came out swinging against the judiciary after the ruling. “All of us have a patriotic duty, and so do judges,” Stournaras told private Skai television in an interview.

“We all need to cut part of our earnings ... to avert collapse,” he said, pledging to fight the ruling all the way to the Supreme Court. Justice insiders say outrage in Greece over successive salary and pension cuts has finally struck home for judges, affecting their decisions.

“It is clear that judges are not reacting as in the past, when they were satisfied with their salaries,” says Penelope Fountedaki, an associate professor of constitutional law at Athens’ Panteio University.

“Now there is a vindictive logic ... that is out of the ordinary,” she told Agence France-Presse.

Judges and prosecutors say their salaries had already been slashed by nearly 40 percent in the last two years and a new round of austerity measures will push the cut to over 50 percent.

“The judicial system so far is not based on state facilities, judges take their work home and pay out of their own pocket for resources such as court data and law publications,” Panagiotis Lyberopoulos, a senior member of the association of judges and prosecutors, said a recent radio interview.

“And the cost of transportation and maintaining a second home [in judges’ allocated area of appointment] is prohibitive,” he said. Retired Supreme Court judge Constantine Lyberopoulos added in a Dec. 16 opinion piece in To Vima weekly: “The workload of judges is such that not even 10,000 euros would be a satisfactory salary.

But then I see that the head of the army general staff has a basic salary of 1,800 euros and I’m horrified,” he added.

1,200 euros a month

Fountedaki notes that judicial officials benefited in the past by regulating their own salaries through a special court set up in 2002. But now, some low-level judges make do with 1,200 euros a month, she adds. This is still over double the legal minimum salary, which for many Greeks has been reduced to under 600 euros after three years of austerity measures.

“On the one hand, there is dissatisfaction among judges over their salaries but also the view that they have a duty to defend social cohesion,” Fountedaki said. “It is important to them to have popular approval.”

Thousands of Spaniards protest to defend pensions from austerity

MADRID - Agence France-Presse

Whistles blowing and horns honking, thousands of people demonstrated Dec. 17 in Madrid to defend their pensions from the austerity policies of the right-wing government of Mariano Rajoy.

Spain’s government broke a key election commitment in November by saying it would fail to raise pensions in line with inflation in 2013, as the crisis bites into the public finances. Responding to the calls of unions, pensioners and elderly people thronged the streets of Madrid to express their rage at the government. “They’re going to leave us in our undershorts,” said a 90-year-old pensioner who would only give his name as Jacinto. “Those in the PP will take more things from us. They have lied to us about everything,” Jacinto added, lashing out at Rajoy’s Popular Party. Prime Minister Rajoy said in his election campaign a year ago that he would make cuts “everywhere” but that his top priority was to maintain the purchasing power of pensions.

Since taking power after a huge election victory a year ago, he has made tough spending cuts and tax rises to lower the country’s deficit as demanded by the European Union and stabilize the public finances. Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said last month that most pensions would be raised by one percent in 2013, but pensions of less than 1,000 euros a month would rise by two percent.

She said the government had agreed to reform a social security emergency reserve fund so it could dip into it to provide four billion euros to make the extra Christmas payments due to pensioners.

Protests against the government’s austerity policies have become daily events in Madrid and in other Spanish cities where doctors, teachers and other professionals go on strike.