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Prosecutor wants Britons tried as spys

PUBLISHED: 07:11 11 December 2001 | UPDATED: 11:01 03 March 2010

THE Greek public prosecutor in the case against 12 British plane-spotters has recommended they should face trial for espionage.

Three judges will meet today to review the prosecutor's report and decide the fate of the Britons and two fellow Dutch plane-spotters who have been in custody for more than a month.

THE Greek public prosecutor in the case against 12 British plane-spotters has recommended they should face trial for espionage.

Three judges will meet today to review the prosecutor's report and decide the fate of the Britons and two fellow Dutch plane-spotters who have been in custody for more than a month.

But the Foreign Office said the judges would make their decision and would not necessarily go along with the prosecutor and order a trial for espionage – which carries a maximum 20-year jail sentence.

After learning the judges would meet today, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw renewed his appeal to Greece to release the British plane-spotters – who include Mildenhall couple Paul and Lesley Coppin.

But after talks in Brussels with Greek Foreign Minister Georges Papandreou, Mr Straw had no comfort for their relatives.

"Nothing would please me more than if they were released in the next few days, but I don't want to raise the hopes of people detained," said Mr Straw.

He met Mr Papandreou for private talks during a meeting of EU foreign ministers - once again urging that, at the very least, the charges the plane-spotters face should be reduced from the major alleged offence of spying to relatively minor breaches of the law.

The Greek Foreign Minister was also confronted by the Dutch Foreign Minister, pressing the case for his two nationals to be released alongside the Britons.

British officials acknowledged the Greek government's hands were tied by the clear-cut separation of authority between politicians and the judiciary - something cherished in Britain as well.

But Mr Straw expressed the hope the current "high-level" charges of spying would soon be reduced and added: "I don't want to raise hopes. These people have had a very harrowing time indeed, particularly Mrs Coppin who is isolated from the others.

"I have now had four private meetings on this issue and the Greeks are in no doubt about the strength of our feeling on this issue."

The one crumb of comfort from Mr Straw was that the accused group had been given improved consular access.

Efforts were continuing behind the scenes at diplomatic and political level and Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to raise the plight of the plane-spotters with his Greek counterpart when the two meet at an EU summit in Belgium on Friday.

The plane-spotters have been behind bars since being arrested on November 8 after attending an air force day at a military air base in the southern town of Kalamata.

The group claim they did not violate the ban on photography at military air bases and were only engaged in their hobby of observing and taking notes about aircraft.

East of England MEP Richard Howitt has been campaigning for the release of the group and he launched yesterday a scathing attack on the Greek legal system.

"This bungling is completely unacceptable given that there are 12 innocent British citizens languishing in jail, with their families at home suffering terrible emotional stress," he said.

"I am also becoming increasingly concerned about the way these people are being treated in jail. I intend to keep the pressure up until the Greek officials see sense.

"There is no new evidence. The only question the judges have to decide is why these people were doing what they were doing. I think there can only be one conclusion."

The constant delays in the judicial process suffered by the group have sparked fears they will remain in jail over Christmas, despite today's meeting of the judges.

One of the plane-spotters, Wayne Groves, 38, of Tamworth, Staffordshire, said: "With Christmas approaching, we are getting concerned now. On December 20 the courts pack up for Christmas until January 7, which is obviously causing us concern."

Mrs Coppin's son Steve Warren, who lives in Lakenheath, added: "There is a terrible risk that their case won't be heard until 2002, though numerous assurances and guarantees have been given regards their release.

"I am very concerned that an EU country can operate a legal system that seems so far removed from that of other union members. My mother has been subjected to unnecessarily poor treatment and facilities, with all suffering squalid prison conditions."

The 13 men are being held in a prison in the southern town of Nafplion, while Mrs Coppin, a 51-year-old grandmother, is being held in Korydallos prison near Athens, the only jail with a women's section.


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