MEP thwarted over plane spotters

PUBLISHED: 07:37 01 December 2001 | UPDATED: 10:58 03 March 2010

AN MEP has admitted only "limited progress" had been made in his bid to resolve the dispute over the British plane-spotters detained in Greece accused of spying.

AN MEP has admitted only "limited progress" had been made in his bid to resolve the dispute over the British plane-spotters detained in Greece accused of spying.

Richard Howitt spent two hours with the plane-spotters yesterday, and earlier met the Greek justice minister.

Among those detained are Paul Coppin, from Mildenhall, who runs Touchdown Tours – the agency which organised the ill-fated week-long trip – and his wife Lesley.

Mr Howitt said there was a lot of anger in the group about allegations against them, particularly that they had ignored earlier warnings not to photograph military bases, which they fervently deny.

The Labour MEP for the East of England went with British consul Donald Holder to see the 11 British men and two Dutch nationals at Nafplion prison, about 56 miles south-west of Athens.

Mr Howitt will visit the only woman, 51-year-old grandmother Mrs Coppin, in Korydallos prison, near Athens, this morning.

He yesterday asked if he could see a cell in the men's prison - but was refused.

"I did receive assurances from the prisoners that the conditions were reasonable, given the fact that this is a prison.

"However, we did raise complaints about the fact that the group has been split up since the court on Tuesday. The 13 are in 12 different cells, and are sharing cells with non-English speakers, and are unable to support each other.

"We also found that 10 of them do not have beds, but are sleeping on thin bedroll on the floor. Also they are unhappy that reading material has been confiscated.'

He raised all three complaints with the director of the prison and received assurances from him on them, though Mr Howitt could not divulge what those assurances were.

Mr Howitt said there was also concern in the group about lack of individual access to lawyers and that they had been presented with legal papers in Greek, which they were asked to sign.

"Quite properly they refused to sign. We asked for the contents of those papers, and were refused them. Though we believe them to be innocuous, we don't know the content.'

Earlier, Mr Howitt met justice minister Filippos Petsalnikos in Athens but said only "limited progress' had been made.

Mr Petsalnikos agreed to use his influence to try to speed up the process and hoped to have a decision in the next week, Mr Howitt said.

But he maintained that members of the group had ignored earlier warnings not to photograph military bases, a claim the families of those detained strongly deny.

"He also said he believed reports by the Greek authorities that Greek security was put at risk, which is bad for our case.'

Mr Howitt said the minister agreed to review conditions in the jails, but had made no promises, telling him: "A prison is a prison.'

And he was dismissive of legal claims that under European Convention and Greek law charges have to be put within a week of arrest.

The meeting came after Mr Coppin, 57, told of the group's "hell' as conditions in their jail worsened. He said they had been strip-searched and thrown into separate cells.

Prison officers had insisted the group could no longer stay together and they were being kept with hardened criminals, Mr Coppin said.

They were sleeping on bare concrete floors because their beds had been given to other inmates, while tablets for their upset stomachs were confiscated.

"Our situation was bad before but it is a lot worse now. It is terrifying here. This is hell,' said Mr Coppin.

A Foreign Office spokeswoman said later that Mr Holder had visited the men yesterday and spoken to the prison governor, who would look into their conditions.

The vice consul, Sharon Silverwood-Robson, will visit Mrs Coppin in prison today .

All the group deny spying charges, which carry a 20-year maximum sentence. They are expected to spend up to 12 more days in jail awaiting a further hearing, which will be conducted in camera with only lawyers present.

The others in custody are: Peter Norris, 52, of Uxbridge, west London; Antoni Adamiak, 37, of London; Andrew Jenkins, 32, of York; Wayne Groves, 38, of Tamworth; Michael Bussell, 47, of Swanland, near Hull; Michael Keane, 57, of Dartford, Kent; Steven Rush, 38, from Caterham, Surrey; Christopher Wilson, 46, who lives close to Gatwick Airport; Graham Arnold, 38, from Ottershaw, Surrey; and Gary Fagan, 28, from Kegworth, Leicestershire.

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