Portugal's courtrooms stand empty

Portugal's courtrooms mostly stood empty Wednesday as a joint strike by judges, investigating magistrates and clerks brought the biggest challenge so far to the Socialist government's sweeping labor reforms. Most courts were shut around the country, according to media reports. The strike was scheduled to continue on Thursday.

However, the Socialist government said it wouldn't back down from its reform program.

"If anyone thinks this (strike) will make the government back off, they're mistaken," Justice Minister Alberto Costa told Lisbon radio TSF.

Costa said the center-left government, elected in a landslide in February, had a duty to see through the reforms promised in its election campaign.

The strikes by twelve trade unions this week overlapped Wednesday, severely disrupting the legal system. Clerical staff supporting police investigations also walked off the job.

The action was called to protest new limits on career promotions, an end to special welfare benefits, an increase in the retirement age and pay hikes below the annual inflation rate.

The government introduced the money-saving measures to reduce the state budget deficit, which has grown to more than double the 3 percent limit set by European Union rules.

Court workers have for years had access to special health benefits, including low cost medicines and special clinics.

The government has also cut the courts' summer recess from two months to one.

From next January, the retirement age for civil servants, including judges and magistrates, is to increase to 65 from 60. They also have to work 40 years instead of 36 to acquire a full pension. The Portuguese Judges' Association complained it was not consulted about the changes and said the government was "arrogant and authoritarian," reports the AP. I.L.

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