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Monday, 4 November, 2002, 13:17 GMT
'I was done for plane-spotting - in 1977'

The British aviation buffs convicted of spying in Greece have returned to appeal against their sentences. In 1977, five others tried to convince a Greek court they too were not spies. Here one breaks his 25-year silence about the ordeal.
"They threw the threat of a death sentence at us just to scare us," says one of the five British plane-spotters arrested on 15 March 1977, suspected of spying on the Greek Air Force.

"I don't think I believed it though. I knew something was wrong, but I didn't think it would go quite that far. But anybody who says they were not scared in a situation like that would be pretty stupid," said the aviation enthusiast, who asked not to be named.

British plane spotters in Greece
The accused want to clear their names
The five men - mostly in their early twenties, with the oldest just 28 - were picked up by the Greek security police as they returned to Athens airport following a whistle-stop tour of military airbases.

"We were young, naive plane-spotters, like the boys you see at Heathrow jotting down aircraft tail numbers. We saw a cheap flight to Greece and said: 'Let's go!'"

Despite their youthful enthusiasm, the men - members of the West London Aviation Group and veterans of other European spotting trips - tried to show caution.

"Greece was an unknown place. No one had gone there to plane-spot before. We were wary of somewhere new, but never in our wildest dreams did we think that things would snowball as they did."

Nabbed on way home

Greek agents had tailed the spotters' rented car as it travelled from airbase to airbase, parking on public highways as the occupants noted down aircraft numbers.

How can this silly, tasteless and costly game be a hobby?

The five's trial judge
When they swooped on the departing Britons, the security police accused the men of taking notes which might describe the layout and features of the military runways they had visited. The five were immediately taken for interrogation by the KYP - the central intelligence agency.

"It was good cop, bad cop, just like you see on TV. One interrogator would be quite nice, then the other one would turn nasty."

After 48 hours of questioning, the five were put on trial.

"We were very nervous. We had no idea if they were going to release us or put us away for 20 years."

Crowds at an air show
Crowds at an air show
During their brief court appearance, the spotters attempted to convince Judge Stephanos Matthias that the taking of aircraft serial numbers was a genuine hobby in the UK (likening it to the Greek passion for football) and that it was not a cover for espionage.

"How can this silly, tasteless and costly game be a hobby?" retorted the judge.

While even Wing Commander Ioannis Marinakis - chief of air force intelligence and a prosecution witness - said the group acted "amateurishly", all of the defendants were found guilty of violating security regulations under article 149 of the Greek penal code.

"They wanted to make an example of us. They didn't want us going home and telling other plane-spotters about all the great numbers we had collected. That would have opened the flood gates."

Extended stay

Though the Britons could have gone to prison for two years, on 18 March 1977, the five were sentenced to 10 months behind bars.

"When it was handed down, there was a sense of relief. We knew what the sentence was - 10 months was not nice, but at least it ended the not knowing."

I didn't want to get too friendly with the other inmates - some were in for murder

The group was taken to Athens' Korydalos Prison - where two of the "spies" were deemed too young to join the main population, and were placed in a young offenders' wing.

"There I was in a foreign country, given a 10-month sentence, sitting in a prison block on my own where none of the Greek prisoners could speak my language. Saying that, I didn't want to get too friendly with the other inmates. Some were petty thieves, but others were in for murder."

With no budget flights to Greece from the UK at the time, the spotters were largely cut off from their families.

"My mother couldn't afford to come out. It was a long flight then, and expensive - all for what would have been a very short visit. I think it would have been more upsetting for her to have come, than for her not to visit at all."

Early release

After two and a half months, a Greek appeal court cut the original sentence to six months and offered the men immediate release if they paid a fine of some 600 - which the families raised with some difficulty.

The Greeks are not naive of what plane-spotting is now

Flying in to Gatwick airport, the released men told waiting journalists they bore no grudges against the Greek authorities and again dismissed claims that they had gone spotting equipped with forbidden telescopes and cameras.

"After that, each of us just went back to our jobs and normal lives. The only lasting effect of being imprisoned was that I found myself walking around our garden a lot - as I'd gotten into the habit of pacing around the prison exercise yard to keep myself occupied."

An Interpol record for spying hasn't stopped the men from travelling unhindered: "It hasn't stopped me going anywhere. There's not even anything to stop me from going back to Greece - not that I have."

Paul and Leslie Coppin return to the Greek court
Among the latest group are Paul and Leslie Coppin
A quarter of a century on, the Greek authorities are again embroiled in a plane-spotter spy trial - with the courts once again purporting to be ignorant of the hobby.

"They're not naive of what plane-spotting is now. When I heard of this new group being arrested I thought: 'It's the Greeks being stupid again.'"

Six of the Britons now back in the Greek courts - plus two Dutchmen from the same hapless tour party - face three-year prison terms if they fail in their appeals.

"I feel very sorry for these spotters. I know what they're going through and what their families are going through. The uncertainty must be agony."

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04 Nov 02 | UK
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