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Official Supports Spy Plane Penalty

November 6, 2002

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KALAMATA, Greece (AP) _ A Greek prosecutor Wednesday recommended that espionage convictions stand for eight British and Dutch citizens who track the movements of aircraft as a hobby but that charges should be dismissed against six others in their group.

The recommendations _ if adopted by an appeals court _ could escalate tensions between European Union partners over the fate of the 14-member group of so-called plane spotters, an established hobby in some countries but unknown in others.

``They are not spies in the classic sense of the word, but the question is whether they gathered information they knew was secret,″ prosecutor Nikos Pandelis told the court in the southern city of Kalamata, where the group was arrested a year ago.

Pandelis proposed keeping the convictions for eight members of the group _ six Britons and two Dutch _ sentenced in April to three years in prison for illegally gathering information.

Six other Britons convicted of complicity and sentenced to one year should be acquitted, he told the court.

The hobby of plane spotting is popular in some European countries but virtually unknown in Greece, which has a tradition of strict military security because of long-standing tensions with neighboring Turkey. Defense lawyers said the group did not pose any security threat.

``They didn’t break into any base. They drove around in full view,″ said defense lawyer Yiannis Zacharias. ``Simple observations can’t be prohibited.″

The judges also heard military experts testify that the spotters’ notebooks contained information easily available in publications and on the Internet.

The organizer of the plane-spotting trip, 57-year-old British taxi driver Paul Coppin, told the court he had been questioned in other countries about his activities, but always released.

The group was arrested after attending an air show near Kalamata, about 150 miles southwest of Athens. They had earlier observed aircraft at five other Greek military sites and visited an airplane scrap yard and war museum.

They spent five weeks in jail, touching off a diplomatic spat between Greece and its NATO allies Britain and the Netherlands.

They were released pending the appeal. Only one British defendant, Michael Keane, did not return for the appeal, citing ill health. Keane was convicted of the less serious crime.

A ruling by the three-member appellate court was possible late Wednesday. If the convictions are upheld, the eight defendants would have only one last option of appeal in Greece.

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