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Thursday, 29 November, 2001, 11:09 GMT
'Plane-spotting? We have other things to do'
Defendants await hearing
The defendants pass time at the Kalamata courthouse
Ryan Dilley
While the case of the 14 plane spotters charged in Greece with spying has aroused much comment in the UK, ordinary Greeks are largely uninterested in the group's continued detention.

Just as the 14 plane-spotters arrested in Greece look little like spies, so the building where they were brought to face the authorities appears an unlikely venue for an espionage trial.

Though less than 20 years old, the courthouse in the coastal town of Kalamata is already as mangy as the stray dogs that sun themselves on the scrubby grass outside.


If they have done nothing wrong, then they will be released

An uninterested Kalamata local
With a family of pigeons noisily nested in the ceiling of the main hall, graffiti covering many walls and every clock in the building stopped at 10 to seven, Kalamata's court has the air of a shopping arcade fallen on the hardest of times.

Though a few armed police officers milled about outside the open door of the room where the defendants were held during Tuesday's marathon 11-hour hearing, security was lax considering the seriousness of the alleged crimes.

No one entering the building was asked for ID, let alone subjected to a search. And while the examining magistrate interrogated the "spies" individually in secret, the guards could only periodically summon the energy to shoo away anyone who stopped at the waiting room door to chat with the remaining suspects.

Is anyone interested?

Those in the UK already baffled that a group of "anoraky" aviation enthusiasts - as Minister for Europe Peter Hain described them - are accused of being real life James Bonds may also be surprised by the lack of attention the case is receiving in Greece.

Plane-spotters
Plane-spotting is largely unheard of in Greece
While Fleet Street had rolled out several big guns to cover this week's hearing, no Greek journalists were in evidence.

The unexpected announcement that the plane-spotters would remain in custody for the time being was seemingly ignored by Greek TV news bulletins.

In the country's leading newspaper, Kathimerini, the story was reduced to just a few lines thanks to the dramatic arrest in Romania of Costas Passaris - Greece's most wanted fugitive.

Other things to think about

With the change-over from the drachma to the euro only a month away and the troubled Athens 2004 Olympics drawing ominously close - not to mention the buzz surrounding the nation's own version of the TV show Big Brother - most Greeks appear to have more pressing matters to consider than the plight of a handful of luckless foreigners in trouble thanks to a hobby entirely alien to almost everyone in this country.

Defendants leave Kalamata courthouse
Kalamata court: 13 men and one woman have been charged
The people of Kalamata are aware that their town - once synonymous in the British mind solely with the famous local olives - is now known in the UK for a less pleasing reason. But most are puzzled by the furore over the plane-spotters' detention.

"If they have done nothing wrong, then they will be released," said one local with a shrug. Greeks see nothing unusual about the authorities' reluctance to release the plane-spotters until they are happy with the group's story.

Nor can many Greeks summon much sympathy for the aviation enthusiasts, since to a population constantly alert to the threat of hostilities with neighbouring Turkey, the idea of showing undue interest in any Greek military hardware seems foolish in the extreme.

Soap opera defence

Thanks to the size of the Greek armed forces - swollen by national service - almost every town of any size has a base, usually surrounded by large signs reminding passers-by not to linger or take photographs.

But the Greeks are not totally indifferent to the frivolities of military life. They are lapping up a new TV soap opera about the life and loves of four airmen.

The Silent Skies also happens to be one plank of the plane-spotters' defence.

The group's lawyer, Yiannis Zacharias, asked BBC News Online how his clients could reasonably be accused of spying on a "top secret" military airfield that is already familiar to a TV audience who tune in to the soap filmed on location there.

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