Britons held on spy charges hope for release

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The Independent Online

Hopes were rising that some of the 12 British plane-spotters who were accused of spying in Greece would be freed after a court hearing later today.

A lawyer for the group, Yannis Zacharias, said that although there appeared to be evidence of wrongdoing by some of the defendants, the court accepted there had been no conspiracy. He said he would push for some to be released without further action and others to be released on bail.

The hearing will take place in the southern town of Kalamata where the group were arrested on 8 November after an air show to mark Greece's National Air Day.

They were accused of taking photographs inside a restricted military area but have denied the allegations – they say they were using only binoculars.

The Greek National Security Service compiled a report into their activities based on notebooks and film the police seized, which turned up new allegations they had, unknown to the authorities, visited a second military airfield. The 12 accused will be in court today to be told of additional spying charges.

Mr Zacharias said he was confident that, for some, it would be the end of the holiday ordeal. "If we are lucky, some could be out by this afternoon. But it has been very unpredictable so far."

The most likely candidate for release is Lesley Coppin, 51, who has endured 10 days in Athens in one of the toughest women's prisons in the country.

She is not a plane-spotter and was accompanying her husband, Paul, who works for Touchdown Tours, the operator that organised the holiday. She was reportedly sitting on the bus when the others were arrested. She has been held in a cell with up to 15 other inmates, accused of crimes such as prostitution and pickpocketing. Her case has been raised in the European Parliament.

The saga is having increasing political repercussions in Greece. The Foreign Minister, George Papandreou, has said the 12 should go free but he became embroiled in a controversy last week when he arranged and then cancelled a visit to Mrs Coppin, claiming he did not want to be seen interfering in the legal process.

But political sources in Greece have also made clear the displeasure of the Prime Minister, Costas Simitis, at an affair that is seen as increasingly embarrassing for the Greek authorities. Mr Simitis was lobbied by Tony Blair last week who "raised concerns'' about the case, according to Downing Street sources. "The involvement of [Mr] Simitis brings important pressures to bear,'' said a security analyst, Alexi Pappahellas. "But everybody, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, all the ministers just want to see these people out of the country and on their way back home to London."

Despite the optimism, lawyers acknowledge the magistrates may take a hard line against some of the group, those whose notebooks were seized. The allegedly incriminating evidence in the notebooks is said to include the tail numbers of helicopters on the military airfield at Megara.

The airfield is clearly visible from a nearby public road but the information in the notebooks might be enough to keep some of the group on remand for a long period until a trial on charges of espionage, which carry a sentence of up to 20 years.

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