Alex Salmond’s accusers urge other women to ‘be brave’

Libby Brooks
Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Nine women who made complaints of sexual offences against Alex Salmond have urged other women to “be brave, be loud, be heard” in the face of bullying, sexual harassment and assault, in a powerful rebuke to those who have accused them of conspiring against the former Scottish National party leader.

Last week a jury at the high court in Edinburgh found the former first minister not guilty of 12 sexual assaults, including one attempted rape. It also concluded that another charge of intent to rape was “not proven”, a Scottish legal formulation which stops short of a not guilty verdict, but finds the accused innocent in the eyes of the law.

All verdicts were by majority, following an 11-day trial. Salmond was formally acquitted of one sexual assault charge midway through the court case after it was withdrawn by the prosecution.

The nine different women, who cannot be named for legal reasons, and who included Scottish government officials and SNP employees, described in court alleged assaults, many of which they claimed took place late at night in the private rooms of the first minister’s official residence, Bute House.

Salmond denied all their allegations, describing them variously as “reinterpretations”, “exaggerations”, and “deliberate fabrications for political purposes”.

In a highly unusual move, reflecting the frustration the complainants feel at being characterised as co-conspirators, the women have set out their response to the verdicts, which they describe as “devastating”.

In a joint statement signed jointly by all nine women who testified against Salmond, they write: “We remain firm in our belief that coming forward to report our experiences and concerns was the right thing to do.”

The women insist that they are still not in direct contact with each other, and that they do not know the identities of all their fellow complainers. The statement itself was facilitated by a women’s rights NGO.

Describing the trial as “a traumatic process”, the statement continues: “As politicians, commentators and society reflect on this case, we would ask you to consider whether behaviour which is so often merely described as ‘inappropriate’ or is tolerated by society, is acceptable towards your daughters, granddaughters, sisters, wives, friends, and colleagues.”

During and since the trial, the women have faced an onslaught of abuse online and have been issued with personal alarms by the police. They add: “We would also request that as you debate, you conduct it respectfully and stay mindful of the many women in Scotland who may have had traumatic experiences and are considering whether or not Scotland is a country in which they can come forward to seek help and support.”

Immediately after the verdict, Salmond’s allies called for prominent officials in Nicola Sturgeon’s office and the Scottish National party to be fired after text messages and emails came to light that Salmond argues raises serious questions about their role in the case, and their handling of allegations against him, including the botched Scottish government internal inquiry into complaints of sexual misconduct brought against him by two civil servants in 2018. Salmond is now expected to sue the Scottish government and wants to put his case to the Holyrood inquiry into the handling of the initial allegations.

Salmond’s defence was that the allegations had been orchestrated by one of the complainers, witness A, a senior official in the Scottish government, while others had been exaggerated. Giving evidence, Salmond admitted with hindsight he wished he had been “more careful with people’s personal space”, while his defence lawyer Gordon Jackson QC described his behaviour as “inappropriate” and “touchy-feely” during cross-examination. Since the verdict, Salmond’s own former speechwriter described his defence as “I’m sleazy but not criminal”.

The women write: “In defending Alex Salmond, Gordon Jackson quoted Woman H and said his client should have been a ‘better man’. He said behaviour which others described as demeaning, intimidating and humiliating, was ‘trivial’. The behaviours that Alex Salmond and his defence team admitted to in evidence were not and are not trivial”. Today we want to send a strong and indisputable message that such behaviours should not be tolerated – by any person, in any position, under any circumstances.”

Thanking Police Scotland, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service “for taking our experiences seriously and for allowing our voices to be heard”, they assert: “Many of us did speak up at the time of our incidents but were faced with procedures that could not deal with complaints against such a powerful figure. Others were silenced by fear of repercussions.”

The trial raised serious questions about the way the civil service and the SNP dealt with complaints. In their evidence, some of the women said they feared making formal complaints would damage their careers or that the matter would be “swept under the carpet”.

The court also heard from a number of witnesses who said that Salmond’s behaviour led to an unofficial ban on him working alone with female civil servants at Bute House late at night. After a junior official accused Salmond of forcing her on to a bed in December 2013 – a charge Salmond denied, stating instead that the pair had “a sleepy cuddle” – the jury heard that instead of an investigation, civil service officials and Salmond’s most senior aide brokered a private apology from the first minister.

The women’s statement argues that “for too long, women have been let down by organisational structures which should exist to protect them”.

“We should all seek to create an environment in which people can challenge and report behaviours without hesitation or fear of retribution.”

Their statement concludes: “While we are devastated by the verdict, we will not let it define us. We hope through shining a light on our experiences, it will serve to protect and empower women in the future.”