We’ve all got our own favourite horror stories about flying with Ryanair, but being suddenly diverted to Minsk (on a flight from Athens to Vilnius) after the plane has been effectively hijacked by Belarusian security agents takes the biscuit. What should most disturb us in Scotland is why this happened – to capture a blogger who’s been a fierce and formidable critic of President Alexander Lukashenko. While there has been nothing close to such state-sponsored piracy in this country, the Scottish blogosphere and Twittersphere are becoming dangerous territory, for much the same reason as in Belarus: we’re ruled by a regime clearly determined to crush forthright dissent or even politically incorrect mutterings. There’s no need for Nicola Sturgeon to hijack a plane to seize any blogger like Lukashenko ordered. Through political control of the police and prosecutors, she can inflict her own subtle (but highly effective) form of state terror on the ground against anyone who resorts to social media to expose her fake commitment to independence or campaign against the gender ideologists she increasingly indulges.
According to fellow passengers, Roman Protasevich appeared “super-scared” as he was hustled off Flight FR4978. We can be sure he was. Ambushed and arrested in mid-air for running an alternative online news channel accused of inciting protests against Lukashenko, he will be beaten, tortured and possibly executed. But here are some other things of which we can be equally sure:
- We can be sure Mark Hirst was super-scared in May last year when Scotland’s state prosecutors put him on trial for making a “threatening” short video in the wake of the criminal trial against former First Minister Alex Salmond.
- We can be sure Craig Murray, the former UK ambassador-turned-blogger, is super-scared as he counts down to next Tuesday, when he could be carted off to jail for his coverage of that trial.
- We can be sure sure the Rev. Stuart Campbell would have been super-scared had he published his anti-Sturgeon website Wings over Scotland in Scotland rather than from Somerset. (Winding it up, he said he was “afraid” to move back north of the Border).
- We can be sure Marion Millar, an accountant from Airdrie, was super-scared when she was told to report to a police station over allegations that she had posted “homophobic and transphobic” tweets. (She claimed she could hardly sleep or eat when she was put in a holding cell).
- We can be sure other feminist campaigners were super-scared when they were hounded on social media by Police Scotland officers for putting ‘Women Won’t Wheesh’ stickers on some lamp posts in Kirkcaldy.
Personally, I’m not super-scared as I tap out these words on my iPad. Perhaps because, as a journalist and media academic for more than three decades, I’ve had some close scrapes in real police states, including Stasi-ruled East Germany, China, Kashmir and the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Or maybe I’m being complacent and naive, for it is obvious that basic legal safeguards and civil liberties I grew up taking for granted have been seriously eroded in recent years. There is something rotten in the state of Scotland: the woman hailed as “reine d’ecosse” (Queen of Scots) by Le Monde seems to believe, like Louis XIV, that “l’état, c’est moi” (The state, that’s me). Not only did she appoint the chief state prosecutor, she also made the Lord Advocate her government’s legal adviser and a member of her Cabinet.
Having just announced his decision to step down, James Wolffe is thankfully on his way out. But there is no certainty the unprecedented powers he singularly possesses will be split once he goes, as opposition MSPs are now demanding. If the First Minister bows to such pressure, she will only do so because she can now afford to loosen her personal control over the criminal justice system a little. She and her husband (SNP chief executive Peter Murrell) are in the clear. They survived Salmondgate under her appointee’s legal protection. Even if his unacceptably dubious dual role is divided, it will still be the obviously politically paranoid FM who appoints the state’s top law officer.
The outgoing one, Walter James Wolffe QC, will go down in Scottish legal history as having to concede in an open court that the prosecution of two men who spearheaded the administration of Rangers FC was malicious. He publicly confirmed that Sturgeon’s Scotland is gradually becoming a semi-police state, in which individuals can be targeted by police Scotland and the state prosecutors without sufficient justification. The magnitude of that public admission did not escape the Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser (a lawyer by profession), who wrote:
A malicious prosecution of innocent individuals is something we might expect from a Third World dictatorship with no respect for the rule of law. But this is not North Korea or Zimbabwe. That it could have happened in Scotland in the 21st century is simply outrageous, and raises the most serious questions about the conduct of the Crown Office.
The difference between Sturgeon’s Scotland and outright dictatorships is that we still have what appears to be a largely independent judiciary. The Crown Office case against Mr Hirst for publicly stating that those involved in an alleged plot against Mr Salmond would “reap a whirlwind” was quickly thrown out at Jedburgh Sheriff Court. Sheriff Peter Paterson did “not accept [the comments made in the video] would cause a reasonable person fear and alarm.”
Far more likely to trigger such anxiety were the revelations of what the falsely accused Rangers administrators had to endure. Arrested for white collar crimes he never committed, David Whitehouse says he was “treated worse than a terrorist”. Faced with bewildering allegations of fraud simply for conducting his profession, the financial expert was flung in a cell in a Govan police station and forced to sleep on a concrete floor for six consecutive nights. Such was their ordeal, he and his colleague Paul Clark were each awarded £10m in damages – and look set to get a lot more.
Obviously encouraged by their legal victory, the former STV and Russian Sputnik Radio journalist Mark Hirst is trying to crowdfund his own malicious prosecution action against the Crown Office for abusing its power and authority. Should he receive what his lawyers anticipate, he promises to repay all donations. Contending that the action he is mounting isn’t solely about him, he has created a website called Civil Liberty Scotland, in which he states on the home page:
We are living through very dangerous times in Scotland where we face unprecedented threats not only from Covid-19 but also to our very basic rights of freedom of expression and civil liberties.
We know that Ms Sturgeon’s minions in St Andrew’s House (and maybe she herself) take an inordinate interest in hyper-hostile political websites. We know this because the most mischievous (of many) Freedom of Information requests submitted by the Rev Stuart Campbell concerned the frequency of accessing different political websites on Scottish Government IT devices. The winner was his Wings over Scotland site. Within a six month period last year it was accessed almost 1,100 times by the First Minister’s officials – significantly above the number of views (890) notched up by the SNP’s official website. What was the purpose of Sturgeonistas on the public payroll scrolling through posts carefully crafted to get right up their noses?
Commenting on the hounding of Mr Hirst by the Crown Office, Tim Crook, Professor Emeritus at Goldsmiths, University of London, stated:
We are very conscious that poor decisions by investigating and prosecuting authorities have a chilling effect on the vital public interest of protecting freedom of expression.
They certainly do. Nothing is sending more of a chill through the Scottish blogosphere at present than the plight of Craig Murray. Although in a fragile state of health, this 62-year-old father of two young boys has been sentenced to eight months in prison, pending appeal, for “jigsaw identification” of some of Mr Salmond’s accusers in his nationalist blog. The fact that no member of the mainstream media has even had their collar felt for committing the same crime has led Mr Murray to argue:
The truth is that in Scotland we now have a police, prosecutorial and justice system which is at the disposal of the Sturgeon clique for the pursuit of their private vendettas against political opponents…Please note that all of these political prosecutions have been based on thought crime. People in a small and definable political group – all people I know – are being prosecuted merely for publishing or saying things which annoy somebody in the Sturgeon clique.
Before you dismiss that as some mad conspiracy theory, consider this statement by Professor Robert Black QC, Professor Emeritus in Scots Law at Edinburgh University:
Equality before the law is a crucial component of a civilised justice system…My concern is that the conduct of the Scottish police and Crown Office, in the aftermath of the acquittal of Alex Salmond, has failed to respect and promote that value.
We’ve never had full equality before the law in this country, of course. Feudalism was founded on the poor having no lawyers and Scotland remains a semi-feudal society, in which legal aid is not available to right many wrongs. Even a skilled communicator like Mark Hirst is struggling to drum up sufficient donations to pursue the Crown Office: he reckons he needs £100,000 but has managed to raise only £18,140 so far.
Taking on taxpayer-funded public bodies can soon lead to financial ruin. It requires particularly deep pockets, along with awesome courage and determination, to put the state prosecutors in the dock. Very unusually, David Whitehouse and Paul Clark possessed all of these requirements in ample measure.
There is a wide expectation that the eventual cost of compensating the Rangers administrators for malicious prosecution might yet run to more than £120m – the Crown Office’s entire annual operating budget. But the Cabinet Finance Secretary, Kate Forbes, has reassured MSPs that the state prosecutors will get whatever top-up they need to continue functioning as they do. Her Holyrood colleagues were doubtless comforted to hear that their beloved SNP Government believes no price can ever be put on the administration of injustice in Scotland.
They get away with all this because, as we have just seen, there is scant public interest in holding our political chieftains to proper account so long as they serve up a fresh set of political retail offers at election time. As most eyes around the world yesterday were fixed on news of that hijacking by Belarusian goons, I suspect a larger number of Scottish voters were far more interested in the first holiday flights to Faro resuming. Grateful no doubt to the Covid Queen – who has a sun-drenched pad in Portugal herself, of course – for slightly relaxing medical martial law.