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Friday, 26 April, 2002, 15:33 GMT 16:33 UK
How did plane-spotters end up as spies?
Plane-spotters at court in Greece
Greek authorities have taken a dim view of the hobby
What did the British plane-spotters actually do when they visited Greece last November?

Indulging his passion for plane-spotting in the glorious Greek sunshine might have seemed like the ideal break to Yorkshireman Andrew Jenkins.

The 32-year-old, together with 13 fellow enthusiasts, had planned to spend a week collecting the makes and model numbers of planes.

Each had paid 650 for the trip to visit Greek military bases, organised by Suffolk-based Touchdown Tours.

But a warning on the company's own website could have perhaps given the jet fans pause for thought.

Prophetic warning

The message reads: "I would warn that spotting in Greece is still not particularly liked by the authorities and without our contacts at the Greek Ministry of Defence, which helped on a number of occasions, the trip might have been a little longer than anticipated!"

But any contacts its author Paul Coppin believed he had in the Greek Government failed him and his tour party on this occasion.

For the 45-year-old owner of Touchdown Tours was also among the 12, and has now been sentenced to three years in prison for espionage.

They really are just about at the end of their tether

Jean Butt

The holidaymakers were arrested on 8 November at a public open day on a military base near Kalamata.

They were initially charged with taking pictures in a restricted area after they were reported for "looking suspicious".

That was later changed to the far more serious charge of spying, which carries a 20-year maximum sentence.

Bewildered, the Brits and two Dutch enthusiasts protested their innocence while they tried to explain to bemused Greek authorities exactly what it was they enjoyed about watching planes for hours on end.

Turkey connection

Plane-spotting is almost unheard of outside Britain, and Greece is particularly nervous about spying due to tensions with its neighbour Turkey.

Matters were complicated further when it emerged that Mr Coppin had visited Turkey in May, as a guest of the Turkish military.

He says he was there as an aviation journalist but the Greeks asked Turkey to reveal anything it knew about the group, while officials in Athens said the group was warned three times not to photograph military bases.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw
Mr Straw is striving to free the group with diplomacy

An anxious few weeks, with the threat of 25-year sentences, followed, but the serious charges were reduced to misdemeanours.

This allowed the group, on payment of 9,000 bail, to return home in time for Christmas and plan their defence for when they came back to Greece for the trial.

Having been advised by lawyers that there was little chance of being convicted, they approached the trial anxiously but with some degree of confidence that their ordeal would be over within a week.

Their defence included witnesses who said that there was nothing in the information they had collected which was not already available on various websites.

But the Kalamata court did not accept their defence, finding them guilty and jailing eight of the group to three years, the rest for one year.

They now plan to appeal against their convictions, and are on bail until the appeals are heard. They will return to the UK, and say they plan to go back to Greece to try to clear their names.

See also:

10 Dec 01 | Europe
Dutch prisoners 'in low spirits'
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