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Thursday, 13 December, 2001, 18:22 GMT
Greek judiciary under scrutiny
Two of the group of 12 British plane-spotters
The group must pay about 9,000 each for bail
By Panos Polyzoidis in Athens

The case against the 12 British and two Dutch plane-spotters has brought the independence of the Greek judicial system under scrutiny.


It must become clear to all that Greek justice is functioning independently and is not the target of pressure by anyone

Source in the Greek Justice Ministry

Since the group's arrest on 8 November, the court in the southern town of Kalamata has been under pressure to free the plane-spotters.

Among the vociferous campaigners for their release were several Greek newspapers and Foreign Minister George Papandreou, not to mention the UK Government and most of the British press.

Now the plane-spotters are set to go home, some people are questioning the extent to which the government in Greece leans on the courts to influence their decisions.

Doubts and rumours

Greek Justice Minister Filippos Petsalnikos declined to comment on the court's decision.

Harry Anthis
Anthis says Greek justice is at the receiving end

But a source in the Justice Ministry told the BBC that "it must become clear to all that Greek justice is functioning independently and is not the target of pressure by anyone."

"The government, as well as Mr Petsalnikos personally, believe in the principle of preserving and further strengthening the independence of our judicial system," the source added.

That is the official line, but the chairman and general manager of the Greek legal internet portal, LawNet.gr, Harry Anthis does not buy it.


Greek justice has been at the receiving end of political or other pressure by and large in the same degree as is the case in other western European countries

Harry Anthis

"The Greek judiciary is no more and no less independent than other parts of the administration and the public service. Greek justice has been at the receiving end of political or other pressure by and large in the same degree as is the case in other western European countries," he says.

"Claims [of extrajudicial intervention] have never been supported with sound proof, and, therefore, so far no charges have ever been brought for intervening in the legal system".

But Greek politics has been shaken by one claim - made by the former Minister of Justice, Michael Stathopoulos within hours of leaving his post - that political pressure was exerted on the judiciary.

Nafplion prison
Nafplion prison enjoys a good reputation in Greece
Even though he hastened to retract this statement, it was enough to feed rumours about restrictions on the judiciary's independence.

These doubts mean it is difficult to establish whether judges were influenced in their decision to free the 14 defendants on bail by the government or, indeed, by British pressure.

Fair to all?

There are also doubts about whether the plane-spotters received from the court and the prison service the same treatment as any Greek citizen would.

"One may say that the whole judicial process has been speedier than average by the standards of Greek justice, but not really phenomenal if one takes into account that the only thing that has been ruled on was the lifting of the temporary detention order and not the case itself," says the legal correspondent of Athens' Apogevnatini newspaper, George Kousoulas.


The plane-spotters certainly faced better-than-average conditions in comparison to what is the norm in Greek prisons

George Kanellopoulos
"Greek courts get clogged up when it comes to dates for proper trials and that is more the case in Athens. Courts in some smaller towns are usually less busy".

As for the Nafplion prison where the male members of the group were held, a local journalist, George Kanellopoulos, says it enjoys a good reputation regarding conditions for inmates.

"The 13 men are kept in the new wing of the facility, which was built only about a year ago, where things are pretty good by European standards - for instance, each cell is normally shared by three inmates.

Despite relatives' concerns, he thinks the foreigners did not come off badly.

"The plane-spotters certainly faced better-than-average conditions in comparison to what is the norm in Greek prisons," he says.

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