Greek court convicts UK plane-spotters

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The Independent Online

A Greek court today found a group of 14 British and Dutch plane-spotters guilty on spying charges, convicting eight on the full charge and the remaining six for complicity.

A Greek court today found a group of 14 British and Dutch plane-spotters guilty on spying charges, convicting eight on the full charge and the remaining six for complicity.

It sentenced eight members of the group – who were found with notes on military planes in their possession – to three years imprisonment, and the other six to one. The court said the sentence would be suspended if they appealed the decision and would be allowed to return home.

All 14 began the appeals process and are expected to leave Greece tomorrow. Some of the defendants looked visibly shaken as a crush of reporters and camera crews swarmed around them.

"I am certainly disappointed with the result," said defence lawyer Yiannis Nikiteas. "We are confident the result will be overturned."

The maximum sentence was five years. Reading out her decision, 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."

Those convicted of the espionage-related misdemeanor were Paul Coppin, 57, of Mildenhall, Suffolk; Antoni Adamiak, 37, of London; Graham Arnold, 38, from Ottershaw, Surrey; Peter Norris, 52, of Uxbridge, Andrew Jenkins, 32, of York; Garry Fagan, 30, from Kegworth, Leicestershire, and Dutchmen Patrick Dirksen, 27, from Eindhoven and Frank Mink, 28, from Den Helder.

The others – Paul Coppin's wife Lesley, 51; Steven Rush, 38, from Caterham, Surrey; Mike Bursell, 47, from Swanland, near Hull; Christopher Wilson, 46; Wayne Groves, 38, from Tamworth and Michael Kean, 57, of Dartford, Kent – were convicted for complicity.

"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. "I am going to the European Court on Monday and I will say what happened is unacceptable."

After hearing the verdict, Rush said: "I am not surprised. Every decision so far has gone against us."

The plane spotters were arrested last November and spent five weeks in prison after they were allegedly caught taking photos during an air show an air base in this southern port city, about 240 kilometers (150 miles) southwest of Athens. They were released Dec. 14 after posting bail of dlrs 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," Bursell testified.

The trial resumed on Friday after a marathon 17-hour court session the previous day ended at 2 a.m. (2300 GMT).

Poulios based his recommendation on testimonies of two Kalamata air base security officers, and reports by the Greek Air Force and the intelligence service.

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.

Plane spotting is virtually unknown in Greece, which has a tradition of tight military controls because of long-standing territorial disputes with neighboring Turkey.