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Monday, 10 December, 2001, 16:32 GMT
Fears of plane-spotters' relatives
Two of the group of 12 British plane-spotters
The group are entering their fifth week in custody
By the BBC's Paul Wood

Families of the British plane-spotters being held in Greece on spying charges say they are "absolutely gutted" as the judges have yet to set a date to resolve the case.

The British Government says the idea that the 12 plane-spotter are spies is ridiculous.

But they are now in their fifth week in Greek detention.

If there is no progress this week the Greek justice system will close down for Christmas and the British group will face the prospect of spending the festive season behind bars.

One relative, Susan Norris, said her brother Peter was finding jail increasingly unendurable.

I would be devastated if the case takes a year to come to trial and I couldn't stand the thought of a 20-year sentence

Garry Fagan
She said: "We're hoping and praying that he will be home for Christmas.

"The Greeks keep saying things and then nothing happens. We are all absolutely gutted."

From inside the maximum security prison at Nafplion in southern Greece, Garry Fagan said that although the group remained hopeful of eventual release, they could not face spending the holiday season locked up.

He said: "We are getting very scared about the whole situation.

"Spending fifteen hours a day in the cells is starting to take its toll.

"I would be devastated if the case takes a year to come to trial and I couldn't stand the thought of a 20-year sentence."

The Euro MP Richard Howitt, who has been campaigning for the plane-spotters to be released, accused the Greek authorities of breaking promises to expedite the hearing.


He said it was "very depressing" that the Greek judges now appeared to be preparing to meet as late as Wednesday of next week.

The leading defence lawyer, Yannis Zacharias, said the state prosecutor had only just sent the court his recommendation on whether there should be full trial.

British plane spotters held in Greece
The group are entering their sixth week in custody
A senior official in the Greek foreign ministry, Alex Rondos, said he wanted to see the plane-spotters freed as soon as possible but he denied the affair was now damaging Greece's image abroad.

He said: "We don't feel in the least bit embarrassed.

"Our judges are not going to allow themselves to become subject to political pressures. They cannot be seen to draw distinctions on the basis of nationality."

Referring to the Daily Mail campaign for a boycott of Greek goods, Mr Rondos continued: "We are surprised and certainly disappointed to see our country traduced in certain parts of the British media."

British diplomats have warned the UK press that portraying Greece as a banana republic will only be counter productive.

'Innocent amateurs'

Angelos Stangos, political editor of the daily To Vima, said Greeks would not like to think they were being pushed around.

He said: "British people have to understand that there are laws even in small countries like Greece."

But while the 12 Britons were arrested originally for taking illegal photographs, their seized film showed only the very public displays at the Athens military museum.

They were said to have made notes of helicopter tail numbers so classified they did not appear in Greek air force records.

The group said that was because they were Army helicopters.

One of the "secret" bases they were accused of spying on is the location for the popular Greek television soap opera "Silences of the Wind".

It's difficult to distinguish between innocent amateurs having a hobby and people having different intentions

Thanos Dokos
Defence analyst
Thanos Dokos, a respected former diplomat and defence analyst, says that by holding the plane-spotters for so long, the military authorities are probably trying to make a point.

He said: "Despite the spectacular improvement in relations with Turkey over the past couple of years there is still a lot of concern and scepticism about Turkey's real intentions.

"So many people in Greece are saying that we need to maintain our defence posture.

"It's difficult to distinguish between innocent amateurs having a hobby and people having different intentions.

"The message will get through that people with similar hobbies in the future will try to respect more the sensitivities - however exaggerated - of this country on security matters."

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