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WORLD | 03-03-2021 10:43

Scotland leader fends off calls to quit over case against ex-ally

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon defends handling of sexual assault claims against her predecessor Alex Salmond, in a case that has erupted into a full-blown crisis.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on Wednesday defended her handling of sexual assault claims against her predecessor, in a case that has erupted into a full-blown crisis for the country's independence movement as pressure mounts for her to resign.

The leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) vehemently denied claims that she misled the parliament in Edinburgh about when she knew of the claims against former leader Alex Salmond.

"I have searched my soul on all of this many, many times over," Sturgeon told a parliamentary inquiry. "It may very well be that I didn't get everything right – that's for others to judge. But in one of the most invidious political and personal situations I have ever faced, I believe I acted properly and appropriately and that overall, I made the best judgement I could."

Salmond, who was cleared of all charges at a trial last year, has accused Sturgeon of a failure of leadership and said he believed she breached the ministerial code, which is normally considered a resigning matter.

It has been a spectacular falling out between Sturgeon and Salmond, her political mentor and long-time friend, casting a shadow over the SNP's prospects at elections coming up in May as the party steps up calls for a second referendum on Scottish independence.

Legal advice reluctantly published by the Scottish government late Tuesday showed it ignored lawyers who said the case against 66-year-old Salmond was doomed, according to opposition parties. Sturgeon also rejected claims that the government deliberately withheld documents relating to the investigation from the committee looking into what happened.

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said he would file a no-confidence motion in the Edinburgh Parliament, where the SNP has no overall majority.

"There is no longer any doubt that Nicola Sturgeon lied to the Scottish Parliament and broke the ministerial code on numerous counts," he said.

"The weight of the evidence is overwhelming. Nicola Sturgeon must resign," Ross added, after evidence from two other witnesses also called into question Sturgeon's version of events surrounding the handling of the claims.

'Very serious mistake'

The newly appointed leader of the Scottish Labour party, Anas Sarwar, said last weekend that Sturgeon should quit if she is found to have breached the ministerial code.

But Ian Blackford, who leads the SNP in the UK Parliament in London, accused the Conservatives of electioneering ahead of the May polls and hailed Sturgeon's "very strong leadership and integrity".

"The first minister has made it clear on a number of occasions that she has not broken the ministerial code," he told BBC radio.

Sturgeon herself rejected as "absurd" the suggestion that "anyone acted with malice or as part of a plot" against her former mentor. "I had no motive, intention, desire to get Alex Salmond," she said.

The row involving two of the independence movement's biggest names has laid bare factional fighting within the SNP, as well as continued support for Salmond, who stepped down as first minister in 2014 after Scots rejected independence in a first referendum.

Sturgeon under scrutiny

Sturgeon, 50, has been hoping to strengthen her case for another referendum at the May elections, leveraging her stewardship of the response to the coronavirus pandemic and Scottish discontent over the UK's Brexit withdrawal from the European Union.

But British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly refused to sanction a new vote, after Scots voted in 2014 to remain part of the United Kingdom.

Under scrutiny is Sturgeon's meeting with Salmond's former chief-of-staff, Geoff Aberdein, in March 2018 when she is said to have first been told of the allegations against her former mentor.

She initially told Parliament she only learned of the claims from Salmond himself a few days later, then she maintained she had "forgotten" about the first meeting.

Before his own appearance before the inquiry last week, Salmond accused Sturgeon and her closest allies of conspiring against him to the extent of having him imprisoned.

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by Stuart Graham with Jitenda Joshi, AFP

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