A group of British plane-spotters were celebrating today after a Greek court overturned their seven-month-old spying convictions.
The 11 spotters who returned for the two-day appeal all walked free last night as they were acquitted and the sentences quashed.
But bizarrely, the only British man who did not return to clear his name became the only one still convicted – of aiding and abetting a group of people now cleared of any offence.
Michael Keane, 57, of Dartford, Kent, was advised not to return to Greece on health grounds after suffering from depression, and decided to abandon his appeal against a one-year suspended sentence.
Ironically, he was advised to take up a hobby by his doctor after suffering depression when he lost his job, and chose plane-spotting.
But his fate was temporarily forgotten as his 11 colleagues and two Dutchmen who were travelling with them launched into immediate celebrations, embracing each other in the dock as many of them fought back tears.
Lesley Coppin, the only woman in the group, wept openly as the judges quashed their sentences.
She said: “It was fireworks going off, it was just everything, I’m very, very happy.”
Her husband Paul, whose company Touchdown Tours organised the trip last November, said: “It is a vindication of what we said all along.”
Michael Bursell, of Swanland, near Hull, said: “Fourteen innocent people have had six weeks in jail, and their families have been put through hell.
“I’m just so relieved that it’s all over, it’s been absolutely awful, I couldn’t go through it again.”
The 14 were arrested a year ago and at their trial in April six of the Britons and the two Dutchmen were found guilty of spying and sentenced to three years in jail. The other six Britons were convicted of aiding and abetting them and given one-year suspended sentences.
They had already endured more than six weeks behind bars and estimate that their fight to clear their names has cost them £25,000 each, including £9,000 (€14,000) in bail money – which will now be returned – court fees, and legal bills.
Freeing them, the president of the panel of judges said he accepted they had not believed they were breaking the law, but refused them leave to apply for compensation for their time in jail.
The prosecution alleged that the spotters had endangered Greek national security by collecting the serial numbers of planes and called for the six convicted of the more serious offences to serve at least a year in jail.
But the case appeared to have hinged on whether plane-spotting could be a hobby – it is not widely recognised in Greece, and the authorities were slow to accept that the group could have been pursuing an innocent, if unusual, fascination.
The president of the panel of judges, Georgics Efstathiou, said: “All the proceedings have shown that the defendants are aviation enthusiasts. This is a new hobby which is very popular these days in Europe.”
The group’s convictions attracted a storm of international pressure and won them support from politicians, ambassadors and campaign groups.
Britiah Prime Minister Tony Blair raised their plight at a meeting with his Greek counterpart Costas Simitis last week, who said he hoped the appeal would bring a “positive development”.
The meeting, when the two premiers also discussed bilateral issues including Britain’s continued refusal to return the Elgin Marbles to Athens, sparked speculation that a deal had been brokered to return the sculptures before the 2004 Olympic Games in return for the spotters’ freedom, although the rumour was vehemently denied by all involved.
MEP Richard Howitt said: “This decision marks the right result, but one that was plainly obvious to all of us involved in the case a year ago”
The six Britons who were convicted of spying were Antoni Adamiak, 37, from Isleworth, west London; Graham Arnold, 39, of Ottershaw, Surrey; Paul Coppin, 46, of Mildenhall, Suffolk; Garry Fagan, 31, of Kegworth, Leicestershire; Andrew Jenkins, 33, of York; and Peter Norris, 53, of Uxbridge, west London. Two Dutchmen travelling with the group were also convicted of spying and had their sentences overturned.
The six found guilty of aiding and abetting were Mr Coppin’s wife Lesley, 51, also of Mildenhall; Michael Bursell, 48, of Swanland, near Hull; Wayne Groves, 39, of Tamworth, Staffordshire; Steve Rush, 38, of Caterham, Surrey; Christopher Wilson, 47, of Gatwick, West Sussex; and Michael Keane, 57, of Dartford, Kent.