BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in:  UK
Front Page 
Northern Ireland 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Friday, 26 April, 2002, 17:14 GMT 18:14 UK
Court of confusion
Relatives of the accused in court
Tiring work: Relatives of the accused in court
test hello test
By Ryan Dilley
BBC News Online, Kalamata
When the verdicts were delivered on the 14 plane-spotters in Kalamata, the defendants were astounded. Yet, from the start, it had been an astonishing trial.
Blinded by a photographer's flash, Judge Potoula Fotopoulou exasperatedly reminded the press crowded into her court that: "This room is not a theatre."

However, during the two arduous days that 14 foreign plane spotters stood before her on spying charges this courtroom drama was seemed sometimes in danger of descending into farce.

Kalamata's courthouse was an unlikely setting for a spy trial of international importance. It was dirty and disintegrating. Defendants could even be seen adding graffiti while they wait.

Sometimes it was hard for the accused to keep up
Judge Fotopoulou's courtroom was no more impressive. On one wall was a stopped clock. On another an icon painting of Jesus, below which a forlorn piece of electrical cable emerged through the plaster.

Crowded with British and Dutch journalists clamouring for a view of the 14 defendants, the room was even more unpleasant.

It was stuffy and hot, but opening the court's few grimy windows ironically served only to allow the engines of the passing military jets at the centre of this case to interrupt proceedings.

Even without this noise, hearing was difficult. Visitors to the court - press and curious locals - came and went as they pleased, with few heeding the warnings not to use their mobile phones.

Long day

But this hubbub was not the only difficulty. The case was conducted in three languages with the competing whispers of the several Dutch and English translators leaving themselves and everyone else confused.

One of the several translators at work
At one point the judge even asked the translations of each line of testimony to be stopped - allowing the defendants only a summary of what was being said.

"They're stopping us having a full translation of our own defence?" asked an incredulous Steve Rush.

During the marathon first day of the hearing, the spotters were lucky to have any interpretation at all. During the final phase of the 16-hour sitting, the translators continually slipped into using the wrong language and unsuccessfully pleaded to be sent home.

The long hours were not the judge's idea though, despite a local reputation for staying late which has earned her the nickname: the Duracell Judge.

Sympathy vote

Rather it was the suggestion of Stephen Jakobi, a lawyer with the British pressure group Fair Trials Abroad.

Kalamata Courthouse
Kalamata Courthouse
He told BBC News Online the tactic would help the defendants present all their witnesses in one coherent block.

The plane-spotters' weariness "would also create sympathy for them on the bench," he said.

While many of the foreign observers found the style of the hearing odd - little in the way of material evidence was exhibited and many witnesses were subjected to seemingly bizarre lines of questioning - Mr Jakobi said he was happy with the process.

"I've been impressed. Everyone has had a full and proper say."

Extra funds

Yet confusion had reigned from the trial's outset, when the spotters were sent off to nearby cashpoints to amass an unexpected 1,000 court fee without which the judge would not sit.

Graffiti in the courthouse
Graffiti in the courthouse
Recesses were sporadic and left many people - including the spotters - wondering when they should return.

There was also great indignation among the 14 when their lawyers announced they would require another 4,000 from each defendant before summing up.

However, it was Judge Fotopoulou who delivered the big surprise in the final act, finding those in the dock guilty of different charges but without calling their names.

Numbers not names

"One, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 14 are guilty of simple espionage," the translator whispered to those within earshot.

Julie Wilson, wife of Chris Wilson, one of the spotters, had been left baffled.

"I had to count along the line to see that my husband wasn't one of that group."

Luckily for her, he got off "lightly" with a one year-suspended sentence.

Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more UK stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more UK stories