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Greece Court Convicts Plane Spotters

April 26, 2002

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KALAMATA, Greece (AP) _ Fourteen British and Dutch plane spotters were convicted on misdemeanor espionage charges Friday and sentenced to prison terms of one to three years. All were released after filing an appeal, and Greece said they would be allowed to leave.

The defendants were arrested last year after attending an air show at a military base in this southern port city, about 150 miles southwest of Athens. They said they were observing the planes as part of an innocent hobby, but police initially said they were photographing aircraft.

During the trial, prosecution witnesses admitted the group had taken no pictures at any of the six air bases they visited before their arrest. The judge, however, dismissed the defendants’ arguments, and they were convicted Friday on the basis of the notes found in their possession.

``This is a diabolical result. These people are not guilty,″ said British European Parliament member Richard Howitt, who has been campaigning on behalf of the group.

The court sentenced eight members of the group who were convicted of espionage to three years in prison. Six others convicted of complicity received one year. The maximum sentence was five years. A date for the appeal hearing was not set, and the group planned to leave Greece by early Saturday.

After hearing the verdict, one of the plane spotters from Britain, Steven Rush, 38, said: ``I am not surprised. Every decision so far has gone against us.″

One of the defense lawyers, Iannis Zacharias, said he felt ``as anyone would feel who is battling a concrete wall.″

In plane spotting, enthusiasts observe, photograph and take notes such as the serial numbers of military and civilian aircraft. The hobby is well-known in Britain. But it is virtually unknown in Greece, which has a tradition of tight military controls because of long-standing territorial disputes with neighboring Turkey.

Reading out her decision after a 17-hour session ended at around 2 a.m. Friday, presiding judge Fotoula Fotopoulou said ``arguments made by the defense are rejected.″ The defendants looked surprised but did not otherwise react.

``They knew this information was secret. They knew they gathered it illegally, and they knew that it could damage national security if it fell into the wrong hands,″ prosecutor Panagiotis Poulios said in his closing statements. ``The use they intended for the data gathered is of no importance.″

The plane spotters were arrested last November and spent five weeks in prison before they were freed on bail of $12,800 each. Originally charged with a felony carrying a maximum of 20 years imprisonment, the charges were later reduced to a misdemeanor. The group denies violating any ban on photography at military installations.

In their testimonies, the plane spotters insisted they were only engaging in an innocent pastime when they took notes about military aircraft.

``There is nothing sinister in this hobby,″ Mike Bursell, 47, testified.

Defense lawyers and witnesses argued that the information they were accused of gathering _ mostly notes about the types of planes they saw _ is freely available in books and on the internet, and that the 14 didn’t know they had done anything wrong.

An aviation editor with Jane’s Information Group, Paul Jackson, testified that Greece provides detailed information on its air force to 30 countries that are signatories to the Conventional Forces Europe treaty _ which Greece ratified in 1997.

The defense also argued that the group had received permission from the air force to attend the air force open day, and that they respected the ban on photography.

Their detention caused considerable friction between European Union members Greece and Britain, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair discussed the case with his Greek counterpart Costas Simitis.

In London, British parliamentarians expressed their shock.

``It just seems absolutely incredible and unbelievable that a Greek court should come to this decision,″ said Conservative deputy Gerald Howarth, a pilot for 35 years.

Howitt said he would raise the issue in the legislative body on Monday and pledged to take it to the European Court.

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