HC Deb 14 July 1999 vol 335 cc378-86 1.28 pm
Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the case of Major Milos Stankovic, MBE, of the Parachute Regiment. I last did this in an Adjournment debate 19 months ago. A great deal has happened since then. The injustices suffered by this serving major of the British Army have continued and intensified. His has been a long and lonely ordeal. At the same time, the excuse available to the Government last time, that this was an operational policing matter, has faded because the Ministry of Defence police have investigated and that phase is over.

What else is new is that there is an increasing awareness in the country, the House and the British Army of the importance of this case and its scandalous nature. In that respect, I am especially grateful to see the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) and the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) here. I pay tribute to them and thank them for their personal and special interest in this case on behalf of Major Stankovic and his mother—an elderly lady, who has suffered immeasurably from the ordeal through which he has been.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall)

I reinforce the point that the hon. Gentleman has just made. Mrs. Stankovic is my constituent; she and the whole family have experienced considerable suffering. That should be taken into account when considering the case of Major Stankovic—the matter has had wide ramifications within the family.

Mr. Bell

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention.

Some background is in order. Major Stankovic is a British citizen; he is a serving officer in the Parachute Regiment of the British Army. As it happens, his father was a Serb and his mother is partly Serb and partly Scottish. They both fought against the Germans in Yugoslavia during the second world war, and were lucky to escape with their lives. They came to this country and made a new life. Milos was born a British citizen; and he is a British citizen. He was educated in British schools. He was accepted into Sandhurst and the Parachute Regiment, and embarked, as a captain, on a conventional military career. He undertook tours of duty in Northern Ireland and with the UN force in Kuwait.

In autumn 1992, when the wars of the dissolution of Yugoslavia began, the British Army was looking for someone in its ranks with knowledge of Serbo-Croat. Two officers had such knowledge; Major—then Captain—Stankovic was one of them. He was renamed Captain Mike Stanley by the Army, in order to mask his family's Balkan connections. The other officer was renamed Captain Costello. Together, and in rotation, they acted as interpreters and advisers to General Rose and General Smith—successive British commanders of UNPROFOR in Sarajevo, and did signal service.

Together, they were the key players in a covert operation, known to insiders as Schindlers. At the height of the war, that operation was responsible for spiriting out of Sarajevo 200 people—Muslims, Serbs and Croats—and reuniting them with their families abroad. Stankovic has been desrcibed as the Schindler of Sarajevo. He served longer in Bosnia than any other British soldier. He was the go-between—the liaison officer—between UNPROFOR and the Bosnian Serbs. His job was to get close to them, to get them to trust him, to understand them and to report back on them. He did that. He unblocked convoys; he saved lives; and he set up the cessation of hostilities agreement in December 1994. He did all that. In December 1993, he risked his life to save a wounded Muslim woman, under fire, in a street in Vitez in central Bosnia. He was awarded the MBE by the Queen at Buckingham palace. In the spring of 1995, he was allowed to return to normal regimental duty with the Parachute Regiment, which he did with distinction. Two years later, he was accepted into the Joint Services Command and staff college, which, as the Minister is aware, is the necessary step to further promotion. It was there, on 16 October 1997, that the Ministry of Defence police came for him. They arrested him under the Official Secrets Act 1911 on suspicion of spying for the Bosnian Serbs.

A word about the Ministry of Defence police is in order. It is a relatively new force and does not seem to share the accountability of other police forces. It had had no previous experience of a case of that kind and no experience of the realities of the Balkans; nor did it possess even those fragments of knowledge that might have illuminated—like a parachute flare—the landscape of its ignorance.

The Ministry of Defence police arrested an officer with a quite unblemished record; they threw him into a cell where they wanted to hold him incommunicado for eight hours while they ransacked his house. From his house in Farnham, they took not only his diaries of Bosnia and his souvenirs, but everything that they could find—an old copy of Playboy, Christmas cards and a piece of sandpaper. They did not know what they were looking at, and they did not know what they were looking for.

The police disturbed a collection of medals and photographs that he kept in his home as a shrine to his father. From his mess uniform, they seized and confiscated his medals. When the list of witnesses was made known to us, we discovered that they had interrogated a Ministry of Defence official and inquired of him whether Major Stankovic was entitled to those medals. That was the first instance of the clear prejudice and animus against Major Stankovic. Of course, he was entitled to the medals; there were four of them—the UN Kuwait medal, the general service medal, the UN Bosnia medal and the MBE. All of them were earned the hard way; none of them came up with the rations.

The injustices multiplied. We discovered that the Ministry of Defence police were trying to turn neutral witnesses into hostile witnesses. A distinguished former soldier, who knew Stankovic well, had recently left the service and set up a private business. He was threatened with damage to that business, if he did not co-operate with the MOD police in the way that they wanted. We have documentary proof of that.

Another distinguished ex-soldier, who had held command, testified to the MOD police that, to his certain knowledge, Stankovic had acted in Bosnia with loyalty and propriety at all times. The investigators told him that, in that case, he might be interested to know what Stankovic had written about him in his diary. Stankovic's diary contained the kind of personal assessment that any man might make in his diary of another. I protested personally about that to the chief constable of the MOD police—Mr. Walter Boreham—and pointed out that it was a flagrant attempt to turn a friendly witness into a hostile one. The chief constable could not even see the point. That is what is wrong with the MOD police; they have no sense of the difference between right and wrong.

There was another strange gap in the evidence. A key witness was Lieutenant-General Sir Mike Jackson—a true British hero, who now leads the NATO force in Kosovo, and is the colonel commandant of the Parachute Regiment. He submitted written evidence to the MOD police, stating what he knew about Major Stankovic. However, when we saw the list of witnesses provided by the MOD police, there was a declaration on the front cover that General Jackson had refused to give any evidence. That was a demonstrable lie. The Ministry of Defence police proceeded with their case on the basis of that kind of mendacity, half-truth and lying.

The greatest injustice of all was the length of time taken over the case. From the time of the arrest to the time when the papers were handed over to the Crown Prosecution Service was 13 months and two weeks. During that time, Major Stankovic was left to twist in the wind. The CPS examined the papers for almost five months, concluding, on 23 April this year, that there was no case to answer. Of course, there was no case to answer, because there was never any evidence.

The spotlight now turns on to the Ministry of Defence itself. There are questions that the Ministry and its advisers must answer. Why was Major Stankovic taken out of the staff college, thereby certainly ruining his career? Where was the presumption of innocence? It could not possibly have been on security grounds, because officers from foreign armies, who have no British security clearance, study at the college. No documents with a level higher than restricted circulate at the staff college.

Why was Major Stankovic not allowed a soldier's friend for the first two months after his arrest? That is the basic right of even the humblest private facing the possibility of a serious charge. When a soldier's friend was nominated—Brigadier Andrew Cumming of the 9th/12th Royal Lancers—why did the MOD police try to block that?

Why did a colonel sign a memorandum for internal distribution at the Ministry of Defence, warning serving soldiers who had been asked by the major's lawyer to give evidence on his behalf? The soldiers were warned that they did not have to do so. That means that those serving soldiers had an obligation to give evidence to the potential prosecution—the Ministry of Defence police—but were advised against giving evidence to the defence. We know for certain that some of them felt that they were intimidated and that, if they had given that evidence, their careers would have been affected. This is not a Kafkaesque police state; this is Britain, which is a free country with a loyal Army to defend it.

My next question relates to the cost. I believe that to prepare his defence—which he had to do—Major Stankovic has run up legal fees of up to 10 times his salary as a serving major. I shall not ask the Minister what contribution the Ministry of Defence has made because I know the answer, which is that not one penny piece has come from the legal defence fund.

I assure the Minister that the Army is watching carefully. It is aware of the injustice, and if Major Stankovic is not well treated, that will have serious repercussions throughout the ranks. Yesterday, I received a letter from a serving soldier who knew the major well in Bosnia. He said: This case is something that astonishes and angers me in equal measure. I hope fervently that some of those responsible will be held to account for the appalling way he has been treated. Only then will I be convinced that there remains some hope that the rest of us will be fairly treated in future. Major Stankovic is entitled to answers to further questions. Who were his shadowy accusers in the first place? Did the accusations come from the intelligence service of a foreign power? If so, which intelligence service of which foreign power? Who signed off those accusations in the Ministry of Defence in the summer of 1997? I doubt whether the decision could have been made at a level lower than that of the Chief of the General Staff. Major Stankovic is entitled to an answer to those questions.

What about the rest of the major's career? Where is the apology? Where is the reinstatement? Where is the sense that the duty of care has not been exercised? He is entitled to answers on all those points.

I do not know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, whether you saw in The House Magazine last week a perceptive piece by Anne Perkins about this case, in which she drew a very apt analogy when she said that this is the British Dreyfus case. Alfred Dreyfus, a French officer of Jewish origin, was arrested over 100 years ago, also on suspicion of giving information to a foreign power. He was the victim of the anti-semitism of the French army and political establishment at that time. His sword was broken on the square and he was sent to the penal colony of Devil's island.

Major Stankovic's ordeal may not seem that extreme, although I suspect that it seems so to him, but he, too, is accused of not being one of us. It is the very qualities for which he was valued in Bosnia, such as his ability to make the mental leap across the linguistic and ethnic divide and to translate the people as well as the language, for which he is now being penalised.

The time has come for reparations. There are very few people who can act quickly to ensure that there is justice in this case. The Minister is one of them, along with the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Chief of the General Staff. I am sure that they are all aware of the importance of this case.

One other officer has a significant role to play: the major general who sits on the board that oversees the Ministry of Defence police, who seem to me to be unaccountable in a way that no civilian police force is. They are the equivalent of a police authority. Have they been asleep at the wheel for the past year and three quarters? Do they merely rubber-stamp the orders of the chief constable, Mr. Walter Boreham?

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

Name the general.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)


Mr. Bell

Last December, I received an assurance from a senior general that when the Ministry of Defence investigation and that of the Crown Prosecution Service had been completed and the case returned to the Army, it would be dealt with very quickly. We have been waiting for 10 weeks, and Major Stankovic was told that he would receive an answer within two weeks. We need clarification.

1.45 pm
Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The right hon. Lady must have the Minister's permission if she wishes to speak.

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Doug Henderson)

indicated assent.

Mrs. Bottomley

The House and my constituent, Milos Stankovic, are greatly in debt to the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) for raising this case in an Adjournment debate. Having raised this case myself and having visited Major Stankovic in Farnham recently, I know that it is hard to exaggerate the suffering and distress that he has been caused. This is an appalling case. There are questions to be answered about his career and the uncertainty and lack of information. Those questions have been well set out by the hon. Gentleman.

The case now raises wider questions. How will others be encouraged to serve in such sensitive situations if they feel that they may become vulnerable to accusation and the destruction of their career? More than that, their lives may be destroyed. If it were not for Major Stankovic's courage and fortitude, his situation would be even more precarious.

We have reached a point where the integrity of the Ministry of Defence police is in question. Everyone in the Ministry needs to consider not only how they can make good this matter to Major Stankovic, but how they can work to regain any respect and confidence in the accountability, management and supervision of the Ministry of Defence police. We are all aware that Major Stankovic has acted with great courage. The number of individuals who have been prepared to comment on his integrity, service and ability is formidable.

I have written to the Ministry on numerous occasions in recent months and to the Defence Committee, asking whether it would be prepared to examine the matter. I appreciate its reasons for rejecting that request, but the issue comes back to the Minister and his Department. How can he reassure my constituent, Major Stankovic, and his family—and, furthermore, the House and the country at large—about this matter?

1.47 pm
The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Doug Henderson)

I recognise that several hon. Members have a genuine interest in this case. That has been particularly demonstrated by the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) and the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley), who have spoken in the debate. I am very pleased that the debate was secured. I hope to be able to answer the specific points, most of which were raised by the hon. Member for Tatton. If I run out of time, I will be happy to try to answer his questions in writing.

I want briefly to explain my obligations in this matter. First, I have an obligation to be mindful of the public interest and the security and defence of the nation. I have to be mindful also of the strict application of the Official Secrets Acts. I take that obligation extremely seriously. I also have a responsibility to refer any allegations of a breach of the Official Secrets Acts to the appropriate channels.

It is not my obligation to intervene on investigations undertaken by the Ministry of Defence police. It is their responsibility to investigate allegations, and I know that they do so in consultation with the Crown Prosecution Service, which decides whether charges should be pressed. However, in the case of the Official Secrets Acts, the Attorney-General must also be brought into the calculation.

In relation to Major Stankovic's current situation, it is not my responsibility to decide whether further action should be taken against him. It is a matter for the Army chain of command to decide whether there was a breach of Army regulations or whether it could lead to administrative action.

I am also strongly aware of my obligation to ensure fair treatment for every serving member of our armed forces in whatever service and whatever circumstances. I take that responsibility equally seriously with my other obligations and responsibilities.

I now turn to the points that the hon. Gentleman raised in relation to the activities of the Ministry of Defence police. One allegation was that the MOD police had ransacked Major Stankovic's house. A second was that the MOD police showed prejudice by their action in relation to his entitlement to medals. Another allegation was that the MOD police had tried to convince witnesses who would otherwise have been seen as neutral to support the evidence that they had brought to the case and that at least one individual's business had been threatened if he did not comply.

The hon. Gentleman has made serious allegations. He will know that it is not my responsibility to investigate the details. That would be a matter for the Police Complaints Authority. If the hon. Gentleman and others believe that the MOD police did not act properly, they should know that the MOD police are subject to the same srcutiny as other police forces and I suggest that they raise the matter through the Police Complaints Authority.

Mr. Bell

I accept the Minister's point. Will he ensure that the board to which the Ministry of Defence police is theoretically accountable takes note of those allegations, if necessary, asks Major Stankovic's lawyer to appear before it and holds the chief constable to account, which it has never done before?

Mr. Henderson

I have every confidence in the MOD police. In fact I attended their most recent board meeting.

If there are referrals to the Police Complaints Authority, the results of any investigation would be subject to monitoring by the Minister of Defence board and by Ministers. I give the hon. Gentleman a guarantee that I will do that should those allegations be made through the Police Complaints Authority.

The hon. Gentleman asked why it took 13 months and two weeks before the Crown Prosecution Service decided that no charges should be brought against Major Stankovic. Hon. Members will be aware that, in most democratic countries, legal processes are often slow acting because balances are built in and there is an obligation on those investigating to make sure that they get to the bottom of the evidence. In this case, 88 witnesses were interviewed, some on two or three occasions; 107 statements were recorded and tens of thousands of documents had to be examined, many of which had to be translated into English. I hope that those figures give a flavour of the complexity of the investigation that was undertaken by the MOD police.

In relation to the further delay since April, given the speed with which legal processes operate—as hon. Members will know from personal and constituency experience—it is not an inordinate delay from 15 April until now. After the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to press charges because of insufficient evidence, the Army chain of command then had to decide whether there were sufficient grounds to consider taking further evidence which might lead either to charges that could lead to a court martial or to charges that could lead to administrative action. The consideration was that the Army chain of command needed access to at least some of the documents that were held by the MOD police. It took from 15 April until 13 June before a request was made for those documents. Given my knowledge of legal processes, I do not think that that was an inordinate delay.

On 25 June, just over a week later, Major Stankovic's solicitors were informed of the request for that documentation and, on 30 June, they objected to the release of some of the documents. The MOD police are taking advice on whether to release those documents to the Army chain of command. Hon. Members and serving officers in the Army will understand that until the legal processes have been undergone, it would not be proper for the Army chain of command to take a further decision on what the future holds for Major Stankovic.

I hope that I have explained why there have been delays and that the House will accept that they were not inordinate. There certainly has been no attempt by anyone in the MOD or the MOD police to delay the proceedings.

The hon. Gentleman asked why Major Stankovic was taken out of the staff college. He was able to consider classified information there and that would not have been appropriate, given the charges that he might have faced, so it was decided to transfer him to regimental duties where that would not be a problem.

The hon. Gentleman asked why Major Stankovic was not allowed a soldier's friend. In fact, he was allowed a soldier's friend.

Mr. Bell

He was not allowed a soldier's friend for two months. What kind of justice is that?

Mr. Henderson

I understand that, within the normal time scale, he was allowed a soldier's friend, but I shall investigate further to find out whether there was any delay of which I was not aware and write to the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman then asked why serving soldiers were warned about giving evidence. The answer is that serving soldiers were told that they could give evidence if they wished and if they had relevant evidence to give. As we have a duty of care, we explained to those serving soldiers that if they decided to give evidence they would have to be mindful that they could not disclose any secure information or they could get into difficulty.

The hon. Gentleman asked who the accusers were. I know that the House would not expect me to answer that, as it would be improper. No police authority will divulge its original source of information. It will be a different matter if the case gets to court.

In respect of the future career of Major Stankovic, now that there are no charges to face from the Crown Prosecution Service, Major Stankovic can return to a normal career in the Army, once the Army chain of command has examined the documents from the MOD police and has made a judgment as to whether there were other irregularities which could lead to a court martial or to administrative action. On the assumption that that does not happen and he is again granted security clearance, I see no reason why he should not re-establish his career in the Army. Indeed, I would expect that. I am determined that justice be done and be seen to be done and that everyone who serves in our armed forces should be treated fairly.

As I said in my introductory remarks, I have wider responsibilities and I need to consider the public interest and the security of the nation. I take that very seriously and it has to be balanced against the rights of any individual in any circumstances. I hope that I have answered the points that the hon. Gentleman raised—

It being Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No.10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.