Alex Salmond
© Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian
Alex Salmond
Alex Salmond has been acquitted of all charges of sexual assault, a decision that prompted his allies to suggest he had been the victim of a witch-hunt within the Scottish National party.

A jury of eight women and five men at the high court in Edinburgh on Monday found Salmond not guilty of 12 charges of attempted rape, sexual assault and indecent assault after about six hours of deliberations.

They came to the uniquely Scottish verdict of not proven on one charge of sexual assault with intent to rape, after hearing nearly nine days of evidence.

The outcome - greeted by Salmond with praise for the judicial system and a call for Scotland's attention to return to the threat posed by coronavirus - capped the most significant criminal trial in Scottish political history.

It prompted immediate recriminations and demands for resignations within the SNP, which Salmond's allies and opposition parties said now faced profound questions over its handling of the case.

The nine women involved in the charges were all current or former Scottish government officials, or SNP politicians. Nicola Sturgeon's government has already lost a judicial review started by Salmond into its handling of an internal review of two misconduct complaints against him in 2018.

Joanna Cherry QC, an influential SNP MP, called for Salmond to be allowed to rejoin the party without delay, and for an independent inquiry into the way the party dealt with the allegations.

"Some of the evidence that has come to light both in the judicial review and at this trial raise very serious questions over the process that was employed within the Scottish government to investigate the alleged complaints against Mr Salmond, and I am sorry to say some of the evidence also raises serious question marks over how these complaints were handled by the SNP," she said.

Kenny MacAskill, formerly Salmond's justice secretary and now an SNP MP, welcomed the verdict, tweeting that he was "delighted" for Salmond and that some resignations were "now required".

After the verdicts were read out, Salmond displayed little emotion, but thanked court security officers and the judge, Lady Dorrian, Scotland's second most senior judge.

Speaking outside court afterwards Salmond said his faith in the judicial system had been "much reinforced". Thanking his friends, family and supporters for standing by him throughout the trial, he said his own "nightmare" could not compare with the coronavirus crisis.

After thanking his "exceptional" legal team, Salmond said he planned to release further information about the case at a later date.

"As many of you will know, there was certain evidence I would like to have seen led in this trial but for a variety of reasons we weren't able to do so. At some point that information, that fact and that evidence will see the light of day but it won't be this day, for a very good reason," he said.

The SNP leader and first minister, Sturgeon, said the verdicts "must be respected", but added that her focus was currently on steering the country through the coronavirus crisis.

"I am a strong believer in a vigorous, robust, independent judicial process where complaints of this nature, if they come forward, are properly and thoroughly investigated, due process takes its course and a court reaches a decision, and that's what has happened today," she said. "I have no doubt that there will be further discussion around this issue in due course, in the fullness of time - and I will welcome that. But that time is not now."

In pre-trial court hearings, Salmond's defence lawyer, Gordon Jackson QC, had told Dorrian there were text messages between complainants, Scottish government officials and SNP officials that raised questions about an orchestration of some of the allegations against his client.

Jackson sought to get some of that material admitted into evidence. In January he told Dorrian the defence believed "there was [a] concerted effort made by people in the government to influence this process, to get it as best they could in terms of criminal prosecution".

He alleged those efforts were motivated by revenge because Salmond had won his judicial review in January 2019, after the Scottish government admitted it had botched an internal inquiry into two sexual harassment complaints against him.

One of those texts included one sent by Leslie Evans, as permanent secretary the Scottish government's top civil servant, to another official after they lost the judicial review, which read: "We may have lost the battle, but we will win the war."

Dorrian refused to allow much of that material to be used in court but allowed other messages to be admitted as evidence.

Salmond was originally charged with 14 offences but was formally acquitted of one charge, a 10th sexual assault charge, after the prosecution withdrew it halfway through the trial.

The not proven verdict on sexual assault with attempt to rape stops short of a finding of not guilty but leaves the accused innocent in the eyes of the law. Two jurors were discharged by the judge on Monday morning, reducing the size of the jury from 15 to 13.

Alex Prentice QC, as he summed up the case for the prosecution, told the jury Salmond was a sexual predator who exploited his power to prey on younger, subordinate women.

Jackson disputed Prentice's account. He told the jury there were no direct witnesses to the alleged assaults, and that inconsistencies and contradictions repeatedly cropped up in the evidence.

"This comes out of a political bubble with no real independent support of any kind. I said already it smelt and I don't apologise for that one bit," he said. "It is the same pattern over and over and over again. It's scary."

The Scottish Conservative leader, Jackson Carlaw, said the verdicts raised further "serious questions" for the SNP, the Scottish government and Sturgeon, which would be investigated by a forthcoming Scottish parliament inquiry.

Pauline McNeill, the Scottish Labour equalities spokeswoman, said the trial was extremely traumatic for all involved, but added: "The verdict of this trial does not take away from the serious concerns about the Scottish government's handling of this. We would expect questions about this to be fully explored during parliamentary scrutiny of this."

Rape Crisis Scotland thanked the complainants for appearing in court. "Regardless of the verdict, the detailed descriptions and court coverage has been triggering and very hard for many people," the group said.