As Bohemia Interactive recently talked to us about the future of its hit ArmA series, a little story about ArmA III came to mind. While a few years ago the Czech studio was working on what will become one of its flagship titles, a funny event will disrupt the development process: two employees find themselves in prison for espionage. A crazy story with heavy consequences that begins on Greek lands ten years ago.
It is Sunday, September 9, 2012. On the island of Lemnos, right in the middle of the Aegean Sea, the sun is shining and the temperatures are mild. Quite naturally, many locals and tourists are stepping outside to take advantage of the good weather. This is particularly the case of the Czechs Ivan Buchta and Martin Pezlar who set off to explore the island with their best camera. But it’s neither nature nor birds that interest our two companions. On this beautiful day, they went to immortalize military installations, ignoring the many prohibition signs punctuating the area.
The problem is that photographing prohibited military installations is not like driving through red lights or stealing candy from the neighborhood bakery. If we see you, it’s guaranteed prison for espionage. Because after all, what could two Czechs do with such pictures if not spy on Greek infrastructure for the benefit of their country? As soon as they are seen, they are therefore arrested and the photos requisitioned: the espionage attempt is short-circuited. But there is a catch! Ivan and Martin are not spies…
If this is not their profession, why take so many risks you might say? Well for the simple taste of a job well done. Ivan and Martin are indeed video game developers and are currently working on a game that takes place on the island of Lemnos: ArmA III. They may explain this to the police, but nothing works. Defending our developers is not enough, even when the studio that employs them, Bohemia Interactive, confirms that they are indeed game creators and not government spies.
It’s true. We prefer that this topic not be discussed on our forums for now, at least until we know more details about the case. I will therefore close this topic and our moderators will close all discussions on this subject. Thank you for understanding.
Marek Spanel, CEO of Bohemia Interactive
However, the box does not really have the same speech as the developers. Never, ever would the studio have asked its employees to break the law like this. According to her, the two accomplices were simply on vacation in the area. It would thus be their love for this game they were creating that would have led them to the lands of Lemnos. Thus, the fact that they took pictures of military installations represented in the game there would only be a strange coincidence. Whether that’s true or not doesn’t matter. Authorities lock Ivan and Martin behind bars. For them, this is the start of a very “bad movie”.
Prison case for ArmA III developers
As you can imagine, going through the prison box when you were leaving for a simple vacation (or work), it has everything of a nightmare. Lucky in their misfortune, our two companions landed in a rather quiet establishment where they are not mistreated. They even come to be optimistic, as evidenced by the written statement they shared shortly after their incarceration:
The conditions are harsh but the people we met treated us well and fairly. All this is just an absurd misunderstanding that will certainly be quickly resolved. We are thinking of you, our families. You must keep calm and not worry about us. We hope to see you soon.
But very quickly, our two Czechs are overtaken by the harsh reality. By discussing with their lawyer, they begin to realize that it is not a short passage. Their trial will not take place for several months and if they are found guilty, no less than 20 years in prison await them. Suffice to say that panic begins to be felt, especially since Ivan and Martin are gradually confronted with the daily life of the prison.
Because if all goes well with the guards, cohabitation with the other prisoners becomes complicated. However, these are not violent people, but rather illegal workers, fraudsters or small drug traffickers. But to survive in prison, selfishness and the hazing of newcomers are the key words. Abused, our two developers take time to understand the codes and find their place. After a month, fortunately, they certainly don’t have the stature of prison kingpins, but enough connections not to be heckled too much. So in the end, the only real test they have left to overcome is, according to Ivan, the feeling of being isolated.
It’s easy to feel forgotten in prison, especially when you’ve been so emphatically accused of a serious crime in the middle of your vacation.
Cut off from the world in a country that is not theirs and forced to put their lives on hold for an indefinite time, Ivan and Martin have many opportunities to lose hope. Fortunately for them, they are together, supporting each other in this painful ordeal. To hold on, they can also count on a few (expensive) calls to family and many testimonials of support, from the Czech Republic and elsewhere.
I’m afraid I can’t fully express exactly how I felt when we first heard news from the outside world, but it was amazing how many people were supporting us.
A matter of state
This arrest caused quite a stir from the start. It is also because the posts on this subject on various forums were too numerous that Bohemia Interactive had finally spoken officially on the subject. In the process, the Czech studio launched a petition to request the repatriation of its two developers. Driven by the growing anxiety of families and Czech patriotism, it quickly brought together thousands of signatories.
Our boys no longer tell us that everything is fine on the phone, that they are managing the situation. After the court ruling, we only heard from them something no parent wants to hear: “Mom, Dad, please save us.”
Hana Buchtova, mother of Ivan Buchta
But this is not enough. The first appeal and the request for release on bail from the two developers were refused in mid-November, after nearly 70 days behind bars. On the Czech side, we suffered this first defeat but we did not give up. Bohemia invites players around the world to personalize letters to cheer prisoners up. The community feeds on its side a website (HelpIvanMartin.org) so that everyone can be informed of the situation, hoping that this can change something. We learn in particular that the families of the two men are in contact with the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Many are working behind the scenes to get Ivan and Martin released. The Czech President at the time, Václav Klaus, took up his pen to bring the matter to the attention of his Greek counterpart, Karolos Papoulia. In his missive, he even implies that if Papoulia does not at least take a look at the case, relations between the two countries will be deeply impacted. For several weeks, the Prime Ministers of the two countries discussed and agreed to resolve this matter as quickly as possible. So things seem to be on track for Ivan and Martin’s second call.
Unfortunately, nothing is simple when it comes to incarceration and administration. It will be necessary to wait January 2013 for the court decision to be rendered. After 128 days of incarceration, the two developers are released on bail (5000 euros per person).
This is liberation! On January 17, 2013, after four months away from home, Ivan and Martin landed in the Czech Republic and reunited with their loved ones. After this real nightmare, they resume their little life, while bearing in mind that they could lose it again at any moment. Indeed, release on bail only induces the possibility for suspects to return home while awaiting their trial. That of Ivan and Martin will take place a few years later. They will be found guilty there but will only receive a two and a half year suspended prison sentence. A lesser evil that still leaves traces, especially on the criminal records of our two companions.. Like what, game developer can sometimes be a dangerous job with serious consequences.
If we suspect that the images filmed by Ivan and Martin were not just simple innocuous holiday memories, at least we are sure that we will not take them there anymore, them or Bohemia Interactive. Because if the two men lived a real nightmare, the studio had to grit their teeth. Deprived of two of its developers, ArmA III has been postponed. In order to smooth things over, the studio has also decided to rename the island of its game to Altis, making it a purely fictional place that cannot be linked to these unfortunate events. In a way, he will have learned the hard way that you don’t play by certain rules of a country, even when you create games.