7 November 2002

Year of hell ends in joy for plane-spotters

By Sean O'Neill in Kalamata

The British plane-spotters convicted of spying in Greece were acquitted on appeal last night amid scenes of jubilation in a packed courtroom.

A panel of three judges ruled unanimously that they were pursuing a hobby, albeit one that was barely understood in Greece.

For Lesley Coppin, the only woman in the group of plane-spotters facing a Greek court yesterday, the moment of acquittal was unforgettable.

"It was fireworks going off, it was just everything. I'm very, very happy," she said.

She kissed her husband Paul as he was acquitted of espionage. Moments later Mrs Coppin, 51, heard, too, that the charges against her of aiding and abetting had been dismissed - exactly a year after the group had been arrested.

Mr Coppin, 46, of Mildenhall, Suffolk, who organised the trip, said: "I'm pleased, very pleased. It is a vindication of what we have said all along.

"But I didn't really expect it, I honestly thought we would get a suspended sentence.

"The judges have listened to the evidence and understood it - something the judges at our first trial failed to do."

After a two-day hearing in the southern port city of Kalamata, the judges deliberated for an hour and 15 minutes before returning to court. Their ruling was read by Georgios Efstathiou, the court president, and relayed to the plane-spotters by an interpreter.

The judge said that the group had been informed by the authorities at another airbase that they were doing nothing illegal. They had travelled on to Kalamata to attend a Hellenic Air Force open day only to be arrested for spying.

He added that six Britons and two Dutch plane-spotters who took notes at Kalamata believed that they were acting legally. He quashed three-year sentences imposed in April and said: "The court accepts that they should be acquitted".

Turning to the five Britons given 12-month suspended sentences for aiding and abetting, the judge said: "They had nothing to do with recording information and were just physically present; we dismiss the charges against them."

Peter Norris, who had been sentenced to three years, said he could hardly believe the verdict.

"Right up to the last it sounded like the tone of the judgment was against us," said Mr Norris, 52, of Uxbridge. "I thought it was leading to a guilty verdict.

All of a sudden we were not guilty. I had to ask the interpreter twice if she was absolutely sure before I believed her."

Perdita Norris, who was in court to support her husband, burst into tears when the judgment was delivered.

"My heart was beating wildly," said Mrs Norris. "That was a year out of our lives, a very long, tiring year. But that is all the worry gone out of our life now."

The other acquitted Britons are: Steve Rush, 38; Antoni Adamiak, 37; Mike Bursell, 48; Andrew Jenkins, 33; Christopher Wilson, 47; Graham Arnold, 39; Garry Fagan, 31; and Wayne Groves, 39.

Michael Keane, 57, of Dartford, Kent, was one of the six found guilty of aiding and abetting but was advised not to return to Greece on health grounds, after suffering from depression.

He has abandoned his appeal against his one-year suspended sentence, which remains on the record against him.

Stephen Jakobi of Fair Trials Abroad praised the appeal hearing as "impeccable" but said the case should have been dismissed much earlier in the process.

"Everybody has been through bloody hell for exactly a year. They have been through hell because of wholly inept junior judges who should not have been trying foreigners," he said.

At the heart of the plane-spotters' ordeal was a culture clash between British eccentricity and Greek obstinacy. The Greeks struggled to come to grips with plane-spotting; they have no word in their language for the hobby.

Yet, although the spotters were the most unlikely bunch of spies in the history of international espionage, the Greek military and courts found it hard to back down.

The worst 12 months of the plane-spotters' lives began last November after their arrival in Athens at the start of an eight-day tour of Greek military airfields.

The trip - costing £650 each - was organised by Touchdown Tours, the business run by Mr Coppin, an avid plane-spotter for 35 years.

The party shuttled around Greece in two minibuses. Mrs Coppin, a non plane-spotter and only recently married to her husband, came along because she hoped to be able to visit some of Greece's ancient ruins.

She said: "A plane has a front and a back, that's all I know. I would rather go and see the Acropolis."

The tour went well until the group reached Kalamata airfield - a jet pilot training base in the Peloponnese. A zealous officer swooped on the group - detaining Mrs Coppin as she sat in a minibus doing a crossword.

For the next six weeks the plane-spotters were shuttled between the cells at Kalamata police station, the district courthouse and Nafplion high security prison.

On their first court appearance they were assured everything would be sorted out and they would be on their way home. Instead they were charged with spying and refused bail.

They finally secured bail in time for Christmas and returned in April to stand trial for espionage, with their lawyers confidently predicting acquittal. Again, the prediction was wildly optimistic and they faced jail sentences but were given bail to fight their appeal.

Yesterday, the only plane in which the spotters were interested was the one that would take them home.