Anger grows over island arrest of Czech software developers on spy charges
Greece is facing growing pressure to release two Czech software programmers arrested in September accused of spying on a military installation on the island of Lemnos.
Ivan Buchta (33) and Martin Pezlar (28), face between five and 20 years in jail if convicted of espionage, with their families warning the men are becoming increasingly anxious about their predicament.
The two, who work for Prague-based computer games company Bohemia Interactive, were detained by Greek police for allegedly taking detailed photographs of a forbidden military area. Their case has prompted an outcry from the highest levels of the Czech government, with President Václav Klaus and Prime Minister Petr Nečas appealing directly to their Greek counterparts to intervene.
Nečas (Civic Democrats, ODS) said it was extremely unlikely the two men had been involved in spying and raised the issue directly with his Greek counterpart Antonis Samaras on the sidelines of the recent EU summit in Brussels.
“I have asked Samaras to make the Greek authorities devote attention to the affair so that no misunderstanding arises that could harm [our] relations,” he said Nov. 23.
The pair has been denied an appeal against their charges, but Samaras has reportedly promised he will personally deal with the case.
President Klaus also urged Greek officials to give the case “special attention,” saying, “The fate of our citizens anywhere in the world matters to us.”
“I have no doubt that the democratic Greek authorities – police, prosecutors and the courts – will consider this unfortunate matter impartially and independently. Even I do not in any way want to interfere with their work,” Klaus told his Greek counterpart, Karolos Papoulias.
“I want to ask you, Mr. President, to follow this unfortunate affair with special attention considering the excellent relations between our nations so this does not throw unnecessary shade onto our relationship,” Klaus warned.
At the time of their arrest, Buchta and Pezlar were believed to be developing the new military “first-person shooting” game called ArmA 3, which is understood to be set on the island of Lemnos, but Bohemia Interactive maintains its employees were simply on vacation and not working.
In a statement, the company also insisted it “always respects the law” and develops all of its products using “publicly available materials only.”
“The whole incident is a terrible personal tragedy for Ivan, Martin and their families; I believe it to be no more than a deep misunderstanding, one that will be swiftly explained,” said Bohemia Interactive CEO Marek Španěl. “Our company has never gathered or collected any restricted information, such as photos or blueprints of military installations of any nation, nor have we ever tasked anybody else to do it on our behalf.”
However, Bohemia Interactive recently conceded the Czech studio has previously had run-ins with the mayor of Lemnos, Antonis Hatzidiamantis.
“In the past, the mayor was vocal about us using maps and how it is strategically problematic because Greece has NATO’s second-largest army [Turkey’s] next door to them,” developer Jan Kunt told the ComputerAndVideoGames.com website.
Shortly after Buchta and Pezlar were arrested, Bohemia Interactive released a statement on behalf of their imprisoned employees, who insist they are innocent.
“The conditions are tough, but the people we meet treat us fairly and correctly. It is all a completely absurd misunderstanding that will certainly be quickly explained.”
“We mainly think of you, our families; you have to stay calm and not worry about us. We hope we will meet soon,” their statement concluded.
More than 100 supporters of the jailed men rallied outside the Greek Embassy in Prague Nov. 26, demanding their release. The demonstrators chanted “Release them!,” waved banners saying “I give one, maximum two days to Greeks,” “Return us our boys” and “Let the boys go home.”
A petition with 21,000 signatures was also handed to the embassy, and the same petition was delivered to the Czech Foreign Affairs Ministry.
“We hope they will listen. This gathering is to support them, to show we are standing by them,” said protest organizer Martin Bach. He said that while the men were in good spirits shortly after their arrest, the two-month ordeal was starting to take a toll.
“Their families say they are having a hard time. In their last message, they said they were finding their conditions hard and difficult,” he told The Prague Post.
Bohemia Interactive has promised to continue its efforts to bring the developers home and has appealed for public support.
“I’m ready to support the guys and their families in these difficult times as much as I can,” Španěl said.
Greece has developed a reputation for sensitivity about its defense operations due to long-standing military tensions with neighboring Turkey. In 2001, 12 British and two Dutch plane spotters were found guilty of espionage after photographing an air show at a military base near Kalamata in the country’s south.
Thirteen members of the group eventually had their charges overturned.