27 April 2002

Shocked planespotters fly home after prison terms are suspended

By Sean O'Neill in Kalamata, Nicola Woolcock and David Sapsted

Twelve British planespotters were convicted of spying by a Greek court yesterday amid scenes of confusion. Six were jailed for three years while the others were given suspended 12-month terms.

Initially, Potoula Fotopoulou, the court president, had intended the three-year sentences to start immediately.

But she relented after impassioned pleas from defence lawyers and the planespotters were due to fly home today pending a hearing of their appeal, which could take two years.

The Britons, including one woman, were convicted by a panel of three women judges at Kalamata district court. They were held after some had noted down aircraft numbers and used a radio scanner at an air force open day at Kalamata last November.

The judge spoke in a low voice, referring to the defendants by number rather than name. Interpreters struggled to hear her and could not accurately relay her ruling to the defendants.

Perdita Norris, of Uxbridge, west London, burst into tears when she discovered that her husband Peter, 53, had been given three years.

"It is totally ridiculous," Mr Norris said. "Everything you could ever want to know about the Greek air force is on the internet or in a book. There are no secrets."

Lesley Coppin, 53, of Mildenhall, Suffolk, whose husband, Paul, 46, organised the trip, was in tears, but determined to clear her name.

"We have proved to the court that we were not gathering secrets," she said. "I am very, very angry. I shall fight this all the way, even if it takes me until my dying breath."

Mrs Coppin, who was sitting in a minibus doing a crossword puzzle when the group was arrested, was given a one-year sentence.

Her son, Stephen Warren, said: "It's insane that my mother, doing a crossword, can be convicted of espionage. They are a bunch of anoraks with a strange hobby, but it is not something they should be jailed for."

Mike Bursell, 47, of Hull, who received a 12-month term, said: "This is not 21st century Europe and if we have to appeal to the European Court, then so be it.

"I am now convicted of espionage. I cannot travel freely around the world. I cannot go to America where I take my family on holiday. I will come back for the appeal, but I would not return to Greece for any other reason."

The delay in implementing the sentences was announced after the judges returned from a five-minute adjournment.

The 12-month terms handed down to six members of the group, said to be accomplices because they did not take notes, were suspended immediately. The three-year sentences, imposed on six Britons who had notebooks and two Dutch planespotters in the group, were suspended as soon as an appeal was lodged.

Time was deducted from the jail terms to allow for the 37 days the defendants spent in prison after their arrest. The group was held in custody in the courtroom until the appeal papers were drawn up and signed.

The prosecution case relied on the evidence of one man, Sqd Ldr Nektarios Samaras, who was convinced that the group's notebooks, full of numbers with red underlining and ticks, were a threat to national security.

Intelligence officers who had questioned the planespotters after their arrest and told them they were doing nothing illegal were not called to give evidence.

On Thursday the court opened at 9am and sat until 1.44am on Friday.

One of the defendants, who had been in court for almost 17 hours, was told off for slouching. One of the judges and several lawyers had appeared to fall asleep.

Just before the closing speeches yesterday, the defendants' solicitor, Yannis Zacharias, called them together and asked for a further £4,000 in fees.

The group's eight-day tour of Greek airfields costing £650 has now turned into a six-month legal ordeal costing each planespotter £16,000 in bail and legal costs.

Barry Wheeler, the editor of the plane enthusiasts' magazine, Air Pictorial, criticised the tour organisers.

He said: "The group is a bit gung-ho. They advertise these trips 'with a difference' and I think they should think twice about that in the future. The Greeks are used to planespotters, but it is one thing snapping commercial aircraft and another going to military bases."

Downing Street said last night: "The Prime Minister continues to follow this case closely. He has previously raised it with the Greek prime minister.

"The Government has always believed that the response to this case has been disproportionate and will continue to give the defendants and their families as much help as it can."

The Foreign Office said that Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, was "relieved" that the planespotters were returning home. It added that he had repeatedly made representations on their behalf.

Richard Howitt, MEP, who has campaigned for the group, said there had been "an outrageous miscarriage of justice".

He said: "I am absolutely stunned. I can only conclude that the judges must have made up their minds long before the trial began."

The case could have serious diplomatic repercussions for Greece. The Greek government is a signatory to the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe, which requires it to disclose the types, numbers and whereabouts of all its military aircraft to other signatories.

The 30 states which have signed the treaty include Britain, Russia and Greece's arch-rival, Turkey.