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Plane spotter who listened in to air traffic control fined

Julian Swift. Picture: Ziphozonke Lushaba

Julian Swift. Picture: Ziphozonke Lushaba

Published Aug 10, 2011

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Kashiefa Ajam

PAY A FINE of R5 000 or go to jail for 10 months. That’s the option facing plane spotter Julian Swift after he was convicted of eavesdropping on an air traffic controller at OR Tambo International Airport.

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Yesterday, Swift was convicted on two charges – illegally possessing radio and intercepting communication – and sentenced in the Boksburg Magistrate’s Court.

A British citizen and aircraft enthusiast, with permanent South African residence, the unemployed 52-year-old mechanic was arrested by airport security in February last year for listening in on air traffic communications. Initially, he was charged with six counts of intercepting electronic communications and 11 counts of using illegal, non-approved radio apparatus.

Speaking to the Saturday Star yesterday, Swift said he was grateful that he had got the option of a fine, rather than being sent straight to jail.

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“It is disappointing,” he said. “This was my hobby. I am not a criminal.”

He said he genuinely didn’t know he was committing a crime listening to the air traffic controller, which is why he didn’t hide or deny what he was doing at the time of his arrest. He said he paid R1 400 for the device.

“Anyone can buy the stuff. You don’t have to be a crook to get hold of this stuff. And it is so easy for crooks to do just that. It is easier to buy these devices than it is to buy a cellphone. When you buy a phone, they want your ID and your proof of address, but when I went to buy the device, they didn’t ask me for any kind of identification,” Swift said.

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Guy Leitch, editor of SA Flyer and FlightCom magazines, described Swift’s conviction and sentence as a “travesty of justice”.

“Julian Swift is an unemployed motor mechanic and this conviction leaves him with a criminal record. He spent the weekend in jail when he was arrested and has incurred legal expenses amounting to hundreds of thousands of rand.”

Leitch said “plane spotting” was a worldwide activity that brought many tourists to South Africa. Until Swift’s arrest no one had any reason to believe an airband radio receiver was illegal.

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“Since Julian Swift’s arrest a number of international visitors have been arrested in South Africa, some spending time in jail.

“In his ruling, the magistrate rejected the mens rea defence, which requires a guilty mind for a crime to have been committed. This despite the shop that sold Swift the radio having no idea that it was illegal and Swift having, in his ignorance of any possible guilt, made no attempt to conceal or deny having the receiver when the police first apprehended him.

“The magistrate also overlooked the defence’s argument as to the problems with what the Rica Act intended in its definition of ‘intercepting’ radio transmissions,” Leitch said.

Swift said he was not sure if he would appeal but was relieved the court case was over. “Life goes on. No one died. It could have been worse.”

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