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Freedom hopes dive for plane spotters

PUBLISHED: 07:27 21 November 2001 | UPDATED: 10:53 03 March 2010

HOPES that British plane-spotters accused of spying in Greece would be returning home today have been dashed after it was announced they would instead be facing more charges.

HOPES that British plane-spotters accused of spying in Greece would be returning home today have been dashed after it was announced they would instead be facing more charges.

The move came after Greek judges examined intelligence service reports on photographs and notebooks belonging to the 12 Britons and two Dutch nationals.

The group - including plane-spotting tour organiser Paul Coppin and his wife Lesley, from Mildenhall - have already been accused of taking photographs at a military air base and of spying.

It had been expected they would be released yesterday when judges reviewed the case, but instead their situation seems to be becoming more perilous and they could now face fresh espionage charges.

Mrs Coppin's outraged son Steve Warren, from Lakenheath, has called for Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to get involved in the case.

"My mother is in a filthy cell with 14 other women, none of whom speak English. It's gone beyond being ridiculous – I'm absolutely enraged," he said.

East of England MEP Geoffrey Van Orden visited 51-year-old Mrs Coppin in prison yesterday.

The grandmother is not an aircraft enthusiast and only went to Greece with the husband she married last year to enjoy a belated honeymoon after the plane-spotting trip.

Speaking from the Greek capital, Mr Van Orden said the investigating judge was proposing additional espionage charges relating to another airfield and the group would have to return to Kalamata to face those charges on Friday or Monday.

"When I saw Mrs Coppin, she was very distressed and concerned. She feels very isolated.

"She is in a cell with 14 women and they share two toilets and a shower. She was a little tearful and had a bit of a weep, but she strikes me as a resilient sort of woman," he added.

However, Mr Van Orden, who is lobbying ambassadors and Greek government officials, remained hopeful the plane-spotters would be released and believed there would be a breakthrough today.

"I feel sure Lesley is totally innocent and I think they are all innocent of espionage.

"They might well have done one or two things that have transgressed the strict sense of Greek propriety, but nothing that would be a crime in the UK," he said.

Mr Van Orden, the Conservatives' foreign affairs, human rights and defence spokesman in the European Parliament, added the group had been largely victims of circumstances and cultural differences.

"The Greeks don't understand plane-spotting. Also, you are talking about a country that has a defence problem through its differences with Turkey.

"They are highly-sensitive on security matters and, in the context of the present international crisis, they are under pressure," he said.

The group was detained on November 8 in the town of Kalamata. They all denied taking photographs inside a restricted military zone, which carries a maximum 20-year jail term.

The charges were increased to espionage after the discovery of notebooks allegedly containing details of two other airfields, including a Nato base at Aroxos in southern Greece.

Their lawyer Yannis Zacharias said the judge planned a new charge of trespass at an airfield which no civilian could approach.

"It seems the experts from the air force, in their report, produced findings that not only support the existing charges, but have led the investigating judge to prepare to bring further charges against these people," he added.

Mr Coppin, who runs plane-spotting company Touchdown Tours, and the 12 other men are being held in a prison in Nafplion, about 80 miles from Athens. Mrs Coppin is in Korydallos high-security prison in Athens, which is the only jail in the area with a women's wing.

Conservative shadow minister for Europe and West Suffolk Conservative MP Richard Spring said his party was "very concerned" over the case.

"We are in touch with the Greek Embassy, we are very concerned and we understand that the judicial process is taking place, but plane-spotting is done in most countries in the EU and is a perfectly legal activity," he added.

"We hope the courts will conclude that they should be released and that there will be some understanding of what's taken place."

Richard Corbett, Labour MEP for Yorkshire and Humber, said: "I intend to raise this question at the plenary session of the European Parliament in Brussels next Wednesday if they have not been freed by then.

"I will be calling on the Greek authorities to release them and to focus their police efforts on genuine targets. I would have thought that with combating spies and terrorists, they would have rather more appropriate targets than this petty action."

A Foreign Office spokeswoman said: "We are in close touch with the lawyer and will be discussing with him the way the case is likely to develop. We do understand that new charges may be brought against members of the party."

She added Europe minister Peter Hain had raised the case with two Greek ministers at a meeting in Brussels on Monday.

Stephen Jakobi, of legal rights organisation Fair Trials Abroad, said: "We are told that, on the basis of notebooks and photographs, all 14 are going to be remanded in custody to face further charges.

"I cannot think of a jurisdiction where on the basis of two or three notebooks belonging to various individuals, and photographs - if there are any that are relevant - belonging to various individuals, you remand in custody 14 people because against a number of these people there can't be any evidence.

"This is the most disgraceful breach of the presumption of innocence and case of locking up people without cause that I have heard of for some time."

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