Former Scottish first minister Salmond cleared of sex charges

Stuart GRAHAM
Alex Salmond speaking to reporters after his acquittal

Scotland's former first minister Alex Salmond was on Monday acquitted of attempted rape and a string of sexual assaults, including one of intent to rape.

The 65-year-old, who led the Scottish National Party's unsuccessful 2014 campaign for independence, was acquitted of all 13 charges against him after an 11-day trial at the High Court in Edinburgh.

Salmond -- one of Britain's most recognisable British politicians who since stepping down has worked as a chatshow host on Russia Today -- showed little emotion as the verdicts were returned.

He spoke only to thank two court security officers and the judge, Leeona Dorrian, according to an AFP reporter in court.

Outside court, he told reporters his faith in Scottish justice had been reinforced, thanking the jury, the courts, his legal team, friends, family and the public for messages of support.

He promised that evidence that could not be put before the court would eventually come out but as the country faced up to the coronavirus outbreak, that would be done at a later date.

"Whatever nightmare I've been in over the last two years is as of nothing compared to the nightmare every single one of us are living through," he said in a brief statement.

"People are dying. Many more are going to die... My strong, strong advice to you is to go home, those who can and are able to take care of your families. And God help us all."

- 'Abused his power' -

Salmond was originally charged with two counts of indecent assault, 10 of sexual assault, an attempted rape and a sexual assault with intent to rape.

But the judge formally acquitted him of one charge of sexual assault after prosecutors offered no evidence during the trial.

The prosecution alleged the offences were committed at various locations across Scotland between June 2008 and November 2014.

The most serious allegation of attempted rape is said to have happened in June 2014 at the first minister's official Bute House residence in Edinburgh.

The jury returned not guilty verdicts on 12 of the charges, including the alleged attempted rape, and not proven on one charge of assault with intent to rape.

Under Scots law, not proven has the same legal status as an acquittal.

Prosecutors sought to portray Salmond as a "powerful man who abused his power to satisfy his sexual desires with impunity", calling him a "sexual predator with escalating gravity".

Lawyer Alex Prentice told the court Salmond's conduct was "intimidating, humiliating, degrading and created an offensive environment"."

A woman who alleged he tried to rape her said she was motivated to go to police in the wake of revelations about Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement.

But Salmond, who was said to be a "tactile" person who would regularly kiss and hug people, told his lawyer Gordon Jackson he and the woman had a "consensual sexual liaison".

He emphatically denied trying to rape the woman.

And although saying he was not aware of problems with female staff, he conceded that overall he wished he had been "more careful with people's personal space".

- 'Political bubble' -

"For a variety of reasons, that events are being reinterpreted and exaggerated out of all possible proportion," he told the court.

Jackson said in his closing speech to the jury he was not arguing his client "always behaved well or couldn't have been a better man on occasions".

Instead, he was arguing whether the prosecution had proved the charges beyond reasonable doubt.

He said "trivial" accusations had been used to "bolster the two charges which are serious".

His client had been in public service for 30 years and dealt with thousands of people but the charges only related to his time as first minister, he added.

"Every single complainer brought to this trial is in the political bubble," he said. "This comes out of this, within this political bubble, with no real independent support."