Ex-Scottish leader to testify as sex case tears party apart

LONDON (AP) — Former Scottish leader Alex Salmond will lay out his belief that his successor tried to damage his reputation through an unfair probe of sexual harassment allegations when he appears before lawmakers Friday in a case that is tearing apart the country’s biggest political party.

Salmond is set to testify to a committee of the Scottish parliament that is investigating the government’s handling of the case. Scotland’s highest civil court ruled in 2019 that the government had acted unlawfully and awarded Salmond 500,000 pounds ($695,000) in legal expenses.

The long-awaited testimony was postponed earlier this week after the national prosecutors’ office expressed concerns about Salmond’s written evidence. The documents were removed from the parliament’s website and later republished with some sections redacted, paving the way for Salmond to appear on Friday.

The case pits Salmond, the one-time head of the Scottish National Party and former first minister of Scotland, against Nicola Sturgeon, his protegee and successor in both those roles. Sturgeon is scheduled to give testimony to the committee next week.

The former allies have traded accusations for months over who knew what and when about allegations against Salmond, who was tried and acquitted last year on sexual assault charges.

Salmond accuses people within the Scottish National Party and the Scottish government of a “malicious and concerted effort” to sideline him and damage his reputation. He has also accused Sturgeon of lying about her meetings with him and of breaking the code of conduct for government ministers. If that were found to be true, she would have to resign.

Sturgeon has accused her predecessor of making “wild claims” that there was a conspiracy against him.

“It is time for insinuation and assertion to be replaced with actual evidence,” she said. “There is no evidence, because there was no conspiracy.”

The case has exposed a bitter rift between two former allies who have dominated Scottish politics for a generation.

Salmond, who led the SNP for two decades and was Scotland’s first minister between 2007 and 2014, built the separatist party into a major political force and took the country to the brink of independence by holding a referendum on the issue in 2014.

He stepped down as first minister after voters decided Scotland should remain part of the U.K. Sturgeon, his friend and deputy, replaced him.

In 2019, Salmond was charged with sexual assault and attempted rape after allegations by nine women who had worked with him as first minister or for the party.

Salmond called the charges “deliberate fabrications for a political purpose,” and was acquitted after a trial in March 2020.

The SNP has become increasingly divided between Salmond’s supporters, who want a new independence referendum come what may, and those who back Sturgeon’s more cautious approach.

Sturgeon and her allies are also critical of Salmond’s efforts to stay in the public eye, especially his talk show on the Kremlin-funded English-language television station RT.

Sturgeon’s popularity, meanwhile, has been boosted by her response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The feud threatens to derail a party that is riding high in the polls and increasingly confident it can secure its goal of taking Scotland out of the United Kingdom.

Scotland’s 2014 referendum was billed as a once-in-a-generation decision, but the SNP says Brexit has fundamentally changed the situation by dragging Scotland out of the European Union. A majority of Scottish voters opted to remain in the EU during the 2016 referendum, even though the U.K. as a whole voted to leave the bloc.

An election for the Scottish Parliament is due in May, and the SNP has a strong lead in opinion polls. Sturgeon says that if she wins a majority, she will push for a new independence referendum.