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Friday, 23 November, 2001, 15:22 GMT
Greek politics and the UK prisoners
British plane-spotters detained in Greece
The maximum punishment for the offence is 20 years
Paul Wood

The Greek Foreign Minister himself, George Papandreou, had been planning to visit one of the 12 British plane spotters being detained on charges of espionage.

Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou
Mr Papandreou was asked to visit Lesley Coppin by her MEP
But, stung by fierce criticism in the Greek media, he called off the visit, and sent two of his officials instead.

Mr Papandreou said he didn't want to be seen as interfering in the legal process.

But the visit by the officials to the only woman among the 12, Lesley Coppin, still suggests that some right at the top of the Greek Government don't believe that the British holiday makers can really have been involved in a conspiracy to carry out espionage.

One interpretation of the bizarre saga is that local law enforcement officials have taken matters much further than the central government would have liked.

Police v intelligence

Certainly the mayor of Kalamata, where the 12 were arrested at an airshow, said that if they had broken the rules, they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Behind this attitude lies a fear that even information collected quite innocently could be of use to a potential enemy, such as Turkey with whom Greece still has several unresolved territorial disputes.

It's also the case that the hobby of plane spotting does not exist in Greece.

The examining magistrate said he couldn't understand people paying for a holiday which involved making detailed notes about the take-off and landing times of planes.

To him, the logical alternative explanation was espionage.

However, the Greek National Intelligence Service compiled a report into the activities of the British plane spotters at the airshow.

Senior police sources said the report would clear the British group, but instead it brought forward a completely new and additional set of spying charges.

Political infighting

This points to a split between various parts of the Greek Government over just how seriously to treat the allegations.

It may also have been influenced by the jockeying for position going on between senior ministers over who will be the next leader of the governing party, PASOK.

The latest prediction from the lawyers is that some at least of the group will be freed at a hearing next Tuesday.

They have already been in detention for more than two weeks.

There have been warnings in the European Parliament that if the British holidaymakers' nightmare continues for much longer, there could be serious consequences for Britain's relations with Greece.

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