26 April 2002

Plane-spotting a mystery to Greek airman

By Sean O'Neill in Kalamata

Some were stiff-backed, others had thin cardboard covers. A few were wire-bound at the side but most opened at the top. Three or four were of the type favoured by policemen, small, black and held together with an elastic band.

Notebooks are the essential equipment of the plane-spotter. But to Sqdn Ldr Nektarios Samaras of the Greek air force they are the tools of international espionage.

Sqdn Ldr Samaras is the man who arrested 12 British plane-spotters at an open day at Kalamata airbase last November, an incident which led to their imprisonment for 37 days and eventually to this, Europe's oddest spy trial.

Yesterday the officer gave evidence for five hours at Kalamata courthouse, a building in which every clock is stopped at 11 minutes to seven, due to an electrical fault.

With Sqdn Ldr Samaras came a green cardboard box containing the spotters' confiscated notebooks. The offending items were laid out in a row before Potoula Fotopoulou, the presiding judge who looks uncannily like Ann Widdecombe.

One by one, Sqdn Ldr Samaras picked up the books, leafed through them and explained the dangers written inside. On every page there were serial numbers of military aircraft. Some were underlined in red ink, others had ticks beside them, one was that of the helicopter used that week by the minister of mercantile marine.

Some numbers were from aircraft in the air force museum in Athens, others had been recorded in Japan, France, Germany and Turkey.

There were numbers from five Greek bases and some from aircraft not on display at the open day. Some of the spotters had muddy shoes, suggesting that they had wandered into unauthorised areas. They had further aroused suspicion by using telescopes and "walking very fast".

Sqdn Ldr Samaras told Mrs Fotopoulou that he had never heard of plane-spotting as a hobby. "The reports they had in their notebooks are professional, not written by amateurs," he said.

"We cannot understand the reason for recording this information. I concluded that the purpose of their presence was to collect classified information."

The hearing, which went on late into the evening, is taking place in an environment far removed from the formality of a British courtroom.

Witnesses and lawyers argue passionately, usually in raised voices. The shouting is often necessary so that the case can continue above the noise. Mobile phones ring and are answered. The old men who have abandoned Kalamata's cafes to see what all the fuss is about chat loudly at the back of the court.

At the front, the 12 Britons, including Lesley Coppin, a 51-year-old grandmother, sit with interpreters who struggle to translate the chaos of the proceedings into English.

For the defendants, facing the prospect of a possible return to a Greek prison or a severe fine, the scene must seem far from comic.