Two years ago Major Milos Stankovic was the hero of Bosnia, honoured with the MBE for bravery and outstanding work as chief liaison officer with the Serbs on behalf of the UN commanders General Sir Michael Rose and General Sir Rupert Smith.
He became known as the British Schindler for rescuing scores of refugees and getting them to safety. He delivered food parcels to both stricken Muslim and Serb families. His activities earned Stankovic, then 34, threats to his life from the Muslim community; by 1997 he was forced to leave the region where he had served longer than any other British officer.
All this counts for naught, however. Almost exactly two years ago, Ministry of Defence police marched into his classroom at the Joint Services Staff College, Bracknell, where he was enrolled in a course, and arrested him. He was accused of spying for the Serbs.
The hero of Bosnia was treated like a common criminal. Though to date Stankovic has not been found guilty of any offence, he has not been declared innocent either. Alun Jones QC – currently acting on behalf of the Spanish government on the extradition of Augusto Pinochet – has chosen to act for the major on a conditional-fee basis. By the new year a writ will be served on the MoD seeking compensation and damages, alleging that the action against Stankovic was brought through malice.
Steven Barker, Stankovic’s solicitor, says: “For two years the MoD police have clouded this case in a cloak of mystery and secrecy to the extent that Major Stankovic still does not know who his accusers are and what the accusations were.”
Stankovic was born in Rhodesia, the son of a second world war Serb refugee, and brought up in Britain, a fully fledged British citizen. He was made head boy of Plymouth College. His dream had always been to join the army and he claims that joining the Parachute Regiment was his proudest moment.
When the army learnt that he spoke fluent Serbian he was immediately recruited to the British contingent that was sent on UN duties to the former Yugoslavia. His knowledge of the language and understanding of Serb psychology made him important to the peacekeeping team. General Sir Michael Rose later wrote to him: “But for your efforts we would never have obtained signatures to the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement in December 1994.”
The work was risky on all counts. By liaising with the Bosnian Serb leadership, Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, both men at the top of the wanted list of the War Crimes Tribunal, Stankovic found himself the object of much criticism from two quarters – the Muslim community and the American intelligence agencies. It is the American intelligence officials who are believed to be the source of the shadowy allegations that were raised, first in the New York Times on 27 November l994 and later in March 1998.
Stankovic was arrested under the Official Secrets Act, accused of espionage and passing information to the enemy. He was taken to Guildford police station in Surrey and held in a cell for eight hours while his home and staff quarters were searched. The MoD police denied him the right to make telephone calls or seek legal help.
After interrogation he was released on bail with the proviso that he not speak to any other soldiers about his case. The army stood him down from his duties. When he returned home, he found that 30,000 items had been taken – personal papers, diaries, letters and magazines, novels, his shaving brush, a piece of sandpaper. As Barker says, “this was none other than a fishing expedition to see what they could find”.
Three hundred witnesses were then interviewed. (The sheer cost of the investigation is mind-boggling, involving travelling overseas to meet witnesses.) In the end the Crown Prosecution Service, which was handed the case by the MoD police, found there was no case to answer and by April 1999 Stankovic was free from bail. There was “insufficient evidence to charge him”.
But the major was subsequently told he could not return to normal duties because his case had to be reviewed by the army to decide if he had infringed their discipline code. The army has tried to obtain from the MoD police details of any substantive allegations and evidence, but so far nothing has been forthcoming.
Who made the allegations against Stankovic? Indeed, what were those allegations? Who made the decision to remove him from Staff College, thus in effect ending a highly promising career?
A growing army of angry and dismayed politicians, led by Martin Bell MP and supported by Stankovic’s MP, Virginia Bottomley, has been raising the matter in the House of Commons. Bell has lobbied, harried and beseeched the former defence secretary, George Robertson, to look into a case of clear injustice.
Ultimately, though, as one legal observer has pointed out, the responsibility to clear up the case lies with the newly appointed Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon. The MoD must produce documentary evidence to justify why it has not reinstated Stankovic without loss of seniority and security clearance – both essential for a successful military career.
A failure on the part of the MoD will affect army morale as well as recruitment. As Bottomley said in the House of Commons: “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?”
The author is a journalist and former MP