Conrad Clitheroe, left, and his friend Gary Cooper, who were both held in jail for two months after taking photographs of aircraft at Fujairah airport, were released on Monday. Courtesy Clitheroe family
Conrad Clitheroe, left, and his friend Gary Cooper, who were both held in jail for two months after taking photographs of aircraft at Fujairah airport, were released on Monday. Courtesy Clitheroe fami

British plane spotters released from UAE jail

DUBAI // Three plane spotters walked free from a court on Monday despite being found guilty of taking photographs of aircraft at Fujairah airport.

British tourists Conrad Clitheroe, 54, and Gary Cooper, 45, and their expatriate friend Neil Munro were sentenced to two months’ imprisonment. Since they had already spent two months in jail awaiting trial, their sentences had been served. They were not ordered to be deported.

“We received some good news today which is what we have been waiting for,” Mr Clitheroe’s wife Valerie, from Stockport in the north of England, said on Monday.

“We don’t have the full details yet. I think they may be out in the next 48 hours. I spoke to Conrad yesterday and he had no idea about what would happen.

“He just knew he was going to court today. It has obviously been very difficult but we have kept the faith.”

Mr Cooper and Mr Clitheroe, a clerk at a logistics company, arrived in Dubai on February 18 on tourist visas.

They checked into a hotel and on February 21 they travelled to Fujairah with Mr Munro, a former colleague who now works at Al Maktoum International Airport in Dubai, to look for old and rare aircraft. They were detained that evening by police who found them near the airport making notes about the planes. Mr Clitheroe and Mr Cooper had been due to return home the following day. Instead the three men were transferred to Abu Dhabi for their case to be heard by the state security division of the Federal Supreme Court.

Nasser Hashem, the lawyer who represented Mr Clitheroe and Mr Cooper, said during the police investigation that he hoped his clients would face a less serious charge once the authorities realised they were not spying but plane spotting, their hobby since childhood.

The accused men told their lawyer and relatives that they did not photograph planes near the airport because they knew it was not permitted.

In court on Monday there was no reference to possible espionage. The three men were accused of taking photos of aircraft parked at Fujairah International Airport, knowing it was not permitted by law

They pleaded not guilty, and said they had not taken photos, but admitted noting down the aircraft numbers.

Mr Munro said they travelled on a public motorway and through the perimeter of the airport when they were stopped. He said their cameras had been confiscated and no pictures were taken.

Judge Falah Al Hajeri said the court had 72 pictures of an airport taken using a telescope, which had been presented as evidence.

Mr Munro said he owned a telescope because he was a member of Dubai Astronomy Group, and he used it to look at the planes.

The judge ordered the photos to be confiscated, but said the three men were free to go.

Radha Stirling, founder of Detained in Dubai, a group that took up the men’s case, said it was the best possible outcome.

“We did put a good legal defence because we had to assume it could go to trial. This is the best case scenario outcome.”

Plane spotters take photographs, make notes of registration numbers of aircraft and helicopters and compile the markings and logos. Plane-spotting websites warn enthusiasts that if they do this at airports in the UAE they may face police checks, seizure of equipment or criminal charges, although plane spotting itself is not illegal.

One of the three men’s lawyers, Salem Al Hammadi, said there was no security risk in plane spotting, and it was simply a hobby.

“The hobby started after the Second World War and is widely known in Europe and the United States. They are allowed to take pictures in these countries.

“The airport is close, and people enjoy looking at it. There was no harm done,” he said.

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