New Caledonia Union Leader Gets Six Months Jail Sentence

A Nouméa tribunal has on Monday sentenced Union of Kanak and Exploited Workers (USTKE) leader Gérard Jodar to six months jail after he was found guilty of inciting an armed reunion that led to violent clashed between union militants and French police, on January 17, in the outskirts of the French territory's capital Nouméa.

The sentence imposed on the union leader includes a formal 12 months jail, including six suspended.

Jodar has also been deprived of his civic rights for a duration of three years, the court ruled.

As part of the same trial, 22 other USTKE militants were also found guilty of a series of offences, ranging from unlawful meeting involving the use of arms, aggravated violence to theft and vandalising of public property.

Sentences imposed of the 22 others range from one month to 12 months jail.

The trial was related to violent clashes between USTKE militants and French police, after an estimated 200 French policemen stepped in to lift a USTKE-staged blockade as part of a strike at local bus company Carsud.

The union was demanding that a bus driver, who was sacked for stealing proceedings from ticket sales, be reinstated.

The violent clashes between police and some 400 USTKE members and sympathisers, on January 17, lasted for up to twelve hours and were locally described as a riot bordering "urban guerrilla".

Dozens of people, on both sides, were injured, some by the French police's notorious "flash-balls (rubber bullets).

Police also used teargas to disperse the crowd and finally managed to restore an uneasy calm in the Nouméa suburb by Thursday evening.

Jodar, on his part, has maintained USTKE militants would remain camped near Carsud headquarters and would keep on organising "regular" demonstrations in Nouméa.
The union leader claims an agreement struck in January 2007 with Carsud management had not been respected.

Since January's unrest, police have stepped in several more times to disperse further attempt son the part of USTKE to erect new blockades at the entrance of Carsud headquarters.

The later interventions, which were incident-free, were said to aim at allowing non-striking employees, especially bus drivers, to ensure there was no further disruption in the bus service in the New Caledonian capital.

But French high commissioner Yves Dassonville later assured, in February, that police would not tire of intervening whenever illegal pickets were erected, "in spite of the hostile and aggressive attitude" from USTKE militants.

Since then, French police have sent a team of investigators to carry out an enquiry into local French police, in relation to the January 17 clashes.

Late February, Jodar and three other members spontaneously turned up at the Central Police Headquarters in Nouméa to be heard as part of the inquiry into the January 17 clashes.

They were briefly held, then released.

Jodar is also summoned to appear on May 16 in another case, this time to respond to charges of organising at least five demonstrations without obtaining prior and proper permits.

After the January clashes, Jodar held a face-to-face meeting with French High Commissioner Yves Dassonville.

As a gesture of good will, USTKE later announced that its strike was to be suspended at Carsud to allow for proper negotiations to take place with the company's management.
Jodar had since taken part in talks with USTKE, under the mediation of New Caledonia's labour department.

But talks have collapsed again and have not resumed since February.
Following his sentence, Jodar told local media on Monday he would appeal.
USTKE is also accusing French authorities in New Caledonia of systematically resorting to violence against the union.

In March, USTKE also announced it was no longer taking part into attempts made locally to foster "social dialogue", as part of a formal roundtable that attempted to identify a consensual way of solving industrial disputes.

In a joint statement released at the weekend, the Human Rights Leagues of New Caledonia and metropolitan France "unreservedly condemned any attack on the right to strike".

"Economic and social rights are an integral part of human rights… To sanction employees because they are taking part in a strike movement amounts to negating the right to strike", the statement went on.

"While the respect of persons and property, as well as the freedom to access to working places must be imposed on everyone, the disproportionate, repeated and untimely of law enforcement agencies can only trigger more violence than it purports to avoid".
But both leagues are also balancing their position, saying "union action cannot let itself be mistaken from the acts of a political party and it is also not compatible to mix personal interests with union activities".

Since last year, USTKE has officially set up its political arm, which it has called the Labour party.

Jodar said at the time it was felt the historic, pro-independence FLNKS (Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front) umbrella of parties had become too soft and too embedded in the local institutions.

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