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Wednesday, 21 November, 2001, 17:20 GMT
Greeks baffled by Brits' plane passion
Plane spotters
Greeks find it hard to see the joy in plane-spotting
By Panos N Polyzoidis in Athens

A cultural gap, outdated national security legislation and their own naivety is what probably got the 12 British and two Dutch plane-spotters into trouble in Greece.


There are many aviation clubs in Greece, but, unlike in the UK and other countries, there is not a single one catering for the needs of plane-spotters

They face serious espionage charges and, if found guilty, could be imprisoned for up to 20 years.

Plane-spotting is less known in Greece, and even less comprehensible, than cricket.

The prosecutor who charged the group in the southern town of Kalamata would probably have wondered what sort of joy anyone could derive from taking pictures or jotting down numbers of planes, military or civilian.

There are many aviation clubs in Greece, but, unlike in the UK and other countries, there is not a single one catering for the needs of plane-spotters.

So what, one might ask. Greeks don't know steak and kidney pie either, but you don't go to prison for eating one.

Why couldn't Greek justice dismiss the case as an example of British eccentricity and release the 14 after establishing the facts?

Out-dated rules

The answer to these questions can be found in Greece's historically troubled relations with her neighbours and the carelessness of previous plane-spotters.


Over the years, several groups of plane-spotters and other tourists have added prison cells to their sightseeing of Greek antiquities and beaches

Greek national security legislation has been designed to serve Cold War needs: the country is surrounded by former communist countries and Turkey, a traditional enemy.

Therefore, laws and regulations are particularly strict to reflect enhanced military security concerns.

Over the years, several groups of plane-spotters and other tourists have been less than careful not to cross the line set by this now outdated legal framework and have added prison cells to their sightseeing of Greek antiquities and beaches.

Tourists usually fall victim to their ignorance of Greek over-sensitivity, but one would expect plane-spotters to be more aware of difficulties they could face during their Greek expeditions.

The country has a known record in the avation enthusiasts' circles as a potential trouble area. But plane-spotters, driven by passion for their hobby, sometimes decide to take their chances.

Disinterest

Greek media and public opinion have not shown any particular interest in the case of the 12 Britons and two Dutchmen.

Greek fighter on Cyprus
Cold War laws put Greek hardware out of sight
They seem to take a more relaxed attitude than the authorities do, maybe considering it very unlikely that this could be a genuine case of espionage.

Had the detainees been Turkish, then the response would likely be much more pronounced.

In any case, as the Athens daily Kathimerini notes, it is unlikely that real spies would go about their business, taking pictures of military installations and aircraft, without taking care to conceal their activity.

But despite the hopes of British consular authorities, the 14 have not been released yet.

Instead they face fresh charges based on Greek military security reports.

Counter-espionage agents had been following the group during their stay in Greece and, according to reports, told prosecutors that the 14 had visited up to five airforce installations around the country, taking pictures and even intercepting radio communications between pilots.

"Would UK authorities not proceed to arrests in a similar case?" asked a Greek official.

The group of plane-spotters will have to give convincing answers to these charges when they appear before the public prosecutor in Kalamata on 27 November.

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