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Skripal case: Theresa May now demands Russia prove itself innocent

British government lacking evidence of Russian guilt reverses the burden of proof

Alexander Mercouris

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After a week of speculation and allegations British Prime Minister Theresa May has finally spoken about the murder attempt on the former British spy Sergey Skripal, which has left both him and his daughter critically ill.

This how the Guardian reports her statement

Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at Porton Down, our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so, Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations, and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations, the government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal….

Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country. Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others…

Should there be no credible response, we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom……

This attempted murder using a weapons-grade nerve agent in a British town was not just a crime against the Skripals.

“It was an indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom, putting the lives of innocent civilians at risk. And we will not tolerate such a brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil. I commend this statement to the House….

The first thing to say about this statement is that it is essentially an admission that the British authorities have not been able to identify any suspects who might have carried out the attack on Skripal.

No person or persons have been identified as suspects in the case, and the only conclusion one can draw from Theresa May’s statement is that the British authorities either do not have the names of any suspects, or are uncertain about any names they do have..

I say this because if the British authorities did suspect any person or persons of carrying out the attack, Theresa May would presumably not be publicly speculating about whether this person or these persons might or might not have acted on the Russian government’s instructions.

The second thing to say about this statement is that the Russian attribution the British government is making is entirely based upon a scientific assessment that the nerve agent used in the attack was one of the agents developed by the USSR in the 1970s and 1980s as part of the so-called Novichok programme.

On the face of it this seems an uncertain basis upon which to attribute responsibility.

Details of the Novichok programme were disclosed by the Russians to the West decades ago, and the properties of the nerve agents developed as part of this programme are well known.  That presumably is why it was possible to assess that the nerve agent used in the attack on Skripal was one of the nerve agents developed as part of this programme.

Given that this is so, it is not obvious how it is possible to say that because the nerve agent used was of a type which was originally developed in Russia as part of the Novichok programme, that must mean that the Russian government or Russians were definitely responsible for the attack.

That seems to me a little like saying that because sarin was originally developed decades ago in Germany, that means that any chemical weapons attack which uses sarin is attributable to Germany.

The danger involved in using the supposed origin of a poison to identify the perpetrator is in fact shown by what happened in the Litvinenko case.

At the time of the murder in 2006 of Alexander Litvinenko Britain was awash with claims that the polonium with which he was poisoned was extremely expensive, was only made in Russia, and had been positively traced back to Russia.  These claims were widely treated as providing the proof that the Russian authorities were responsible for Litvinenko’s murder.

In the event, the public inquiry into Litvinenko’s murder, after hearing from a range of scientific witnesses, concluded that all the claims which had for a decade been made about polonium were untrue: it is not expensive, it is not produced only in Russia, and it is scientifically impossible to trace the point of origin of any polonium sample, whether to Russia or to anywhere else.

The Judge who headed the inquiry could not conceal his disappointment, making the extraordinary statement in his inquiry report that though it could not be proved that the polonium had come from Russia, it nonetheless might have done so.

The result was that with the polonium evidence – the evidence which supposedly “proved” Russian state involvement – having collapsed, the Judge could only say that the Russian authorities were “probably” involved, and could only do so by speculating at length about possible but in fact unlikely connections between the Russian authorities and the two men who were Litvinenko’s likely murderers spiced up with further speculations about the possible motives the Russians might have had for wanting Litvinenko dead (see my detailed discussion of the Litvinenko inquiry here).

It is therefore alarming to see Theresa May in the Skripal case in effect doing the same thing as the Judge did in the Litvinenko inquiry: gingering up a case against the Russian authorities which is nowhere near proved by making general assertions about Russian conduct which have no direct bearing on the case itself.

How else to explain such comments as her comment about “Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations, and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations” and her utterly gratuitous reference to Crimea in another part of her statement?

That the British authorities actually know very little about the attack on Skripal, and are perfectly aware that the case they are making against Russia is nowhere near proved, is shown by the bizarre way they are now approaching Russia.

Instead of sharing with the Russians their conclusions about the nerve agent that was used to poison Skripal, and asking the Russians for their cooperation in a case where the victim was a former Russian citizen and where the nerve agent used is of a type that was developed in Russia, the British government has instead given the Russian authorities an ultimatum, saying that they must prove their innocence by tomorrow or the British government will assume they are guilty.

I say that because that is what these words in Theresa May’s statement amount to

Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country. Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others…

Should there be no credible response, we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom……

That this is a way of proving guilt by reversing the burden of the proof – something which is both wrong and absurd in a criminal investigation in a modern European country – ought to be obvious.

What this ultimatum in fact actually shows is that the British government is determined to declare the Russian government guilty, but cannot prove its case, so it has to use an ultimatum to provide proof of guilt which ‘proof’ is however actually a sham.

The Russians have in fact previously offered their cooperation to solve the case.

Perhaps that offer is also a sham.  However if the British authorities really were serious about finding out the truth of what happened or – better still – were really intent on making a case that could stand up in a court of law, they would accept this offer.

If it turned out that the Russian offer was a sham then in that case – but not before – the British government would be entitled to make public inferences from it.

Where does all this leave the case?

I do not know how Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yulia came to be poisoned.  I have a completely open mind about that and about who may have been responsible.  At this very early stage in the investigation when few facts are known so should everyone else.

The fact that the nerve agent used to poison Skripal apparently has a Russian origin – which is not the same as saying that it was made in Russia – is suggestive and important, but without much more knowledge about the other facts of the case it is impossible to say what weight should be placed on it.

I would refer again to the mistaken way the polonium evidence was initially assessed in the Litvinenko case (see above) and the way that mistaken assessment came to distort the whole conduct of that case.

Which brings me directly to the problem.

Now that the British government right at the beginning of the investigation has publicly declared that the attack on Skripal originated in Russia, with all the indications being that the British government will say tomorrow that the Russian authorities were directly responsible, the future conduct of the investigation has been irredeemably prejudiced.

It is now all but impossible for the British courts and the British police – who are ultimately officials of the British state – to come to any conclusion other than the one the British government has now publicly made for them.

The result is that what might be other promising lines of enquiry in the case will not now be followed up.

Again the lesson of the Litvinenko case is instructive.  Having predetermined Russian guilt on the strength of an assessment of the polonium evidence which turned out to be wrong, it became impossible for the British authorities to draw back, so that the Judge who headed the inquiry into Litvinenko’s death came to the inquiry with his mind made up.

The result was that when the polonium evidence collapsed it was impossible for him to change his mind, so that instead of doing so he hunted around for other ‘evidence’ in order to find a way to make a verdict of Russian guilt, which he came to the inquiry already believing in.

Once upon a time the dangers of rushing prematurely to conclusions about guilt or innocence in a case were well understood in Britain.

Prior to a change in the law in 1981, which effectively abolished the sub judice rule, the sort of speculations that were made in 2006 in the Litvinenko case, and which are being made in the Skripal case today, would have been impossible.

Certainly it is inconceivable that the British government before 1981 would have publicly interfered in a case in the way that Theresa May has just done.

The fact that the British government is now doing so is in some respects even more concerning than the fact and manner of the attack on Skripal.

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Foreign Banks Are Embracing Russia’s Alternative To SWIFT, Moscow Says

Given its status as a major energy exporter, Russia has leverage that could help attract partners to its new SWIFT alternative.

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Via Zerohedge


On Friday, one day after Russia and China pledged to reduce their reliance on the dollar by increasing the amount of bilateral trade conducted in rubles and yuan (a goal toward which much progress has already been made over the past three years), Russia’s Central Bank provided the latest update on Moscow’s alternative to US-dominated international payments network SWIFT.

Moscow started working on the project back in 2014, when international sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea inspired fears that the country’s largest banks would soon be cut off from SWIFT which, though it’s based in Belgium and claims to be politically neutral, is effectively controlled by the US Treasury.

Today, the Russian alternative, known as the System for Transfer of Financial Messages, has attracted a modest amount of support within the Russian business community, with 416 Russian companies having joined as of September, including the Russian Federal Treasury and large state corporations likeGazprom Neft and Rosneft.

And now, eight months after a senior Russian official advised that “our banks are ready to turn off SWIFT,” it appears the system has reached another milestone in its development: It’s ready to take on international partners in the quest to de-dollarize and end the US’s leverage over the international financial system. A Russian official advised that non-residents will begin joining the system “this year,” according to RT.

“Non-residents will start connecting to us this year. People are already turning to us,”said First Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Russia Olga Skorobogatova. Earlier, the official said that by using the alternative payment system foreign firms would be able to do business with sanctioned Russian companies.

Turkey, China, India and others are among the countries that might be interested in a SWIFT alternative, as Russian President Vladimir Putin pointed out in a speech earlier this month, the US’s willingness to blithely sanction countries from Iran to Venezuela and beyond will eventually rebound on the US economy by undermining the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency.

To be sure, the Russians aren’t the only ones building a SWIFT alternative to help avoid US sanctions. Russia and China, along with the European Union are launching an interbank payments network known as the Special Purpose Vehicle to help companies pursue “legitimate business with Iran” in defiance of US sanctions.

Given its status as a major energy exporter, Russia has leverage that could help attract partners to its new SWIFT alternative. For one, much of Europe is dependent on Russian natural gas and oil.

And as Russian trade with other US rivals increases, Moscow’s payments network will look increasingly attractive,particularly if buyers of Russian crude have no other alternatives to pay for their goods.

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US leaving INF will put nuclear non-proliferation at risk & may lead to ‘complete chaos’

The US is pulling out of a nuclear missile pact with Russia. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty requires both countries to eliminate their short and medium-range atomic missiles.

The Duran

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Via RT


If the US ditches the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), it could collapse the entire nuclear non-proliferation system, and bring nuclear war even closer, Russian officials warn.

By ending the INF, Washington risks creating a domino effect which could endanger other landmark deals like the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and collapse the existing non-proliferation mechanism as we know it, senior lawmaker Konstantin Kosachev said on Sunday.

The current iteration of the START treaty, which limits the deployment of all types of nuclear weapons, is due to expire in 2021. Kosachev, who chairs the Parliament’s Upper House Foreign Affairs Committee, warned that such an outcome pits mankind against “complete chaos in terms of nuclear weapons.”

“Now the US Western allies face a choice: either embarking on the same path, possibly leading to new war, or siding with common sense, at least for the sake of their self-preservation instinct.”

His remarks came after US President Donald Trump announced his intentions to “terminate” the INF, citing alleged violations of the deal by Russia.

Moscow has repeatedly denied undermining the treaty, pointing out that Trump has failed to produce any evidence of violations. Moreover, Russian officials insist that the deployment of US-made Mk 41 ground-based universal launching systems in Europe actually violates the agreement since the launchers are capable of firing mid-range cruise missiles.

Leonid Slutsky, who leads the Foreign Affairs Committee in parliament’s lower chamber, argued that Trump’s words are akin to placing “a huge mine under the whole disarmament process on the planet.”

The INF Treaty was signed in 1987 by then-President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The deal effectively bans the parties from having and developing short- and mid-range missiles of all types. According to the provisions, the US was obliged to destroy Pershing I and II launcher systems and BGM-109G Gryphon ground-launched cruise missiles. Moscow, meanwhile, pledged to remove the SS-20 and several other types of missiles from its nuclear arsenal.

Pershing missiles stationed in the US Army arsenal. © Hulton Archive / Getty Images ©

By scrapping the historic accord, Washington is trying to fulfill its “dream of a unipolar world,” a source within the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

“This decision fits into the US policy of ditching the international agreements which impose equal obligations on it and its partners, and render the ‘exceptionalism’ concept vulnerable.”

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov denounced Trump’s threats as “blackmail” and said that Washington wants to dismantle the INF because it views the deal as a “problem” on its course for “total domination” in the military sphere.

The issue of nuclear arms treaties is too vital for national and global security to rush into hastily-made “emotional” decisions, the official explained. Russia is expecting to hear more on the US’ plans from Trump’s top security adviser, John Bolton, who is set to hold talks in Moscow tomorrow.

President Trump has been open about unilaterally pulling the US out of various international agreements if he deems them to be damaging to national interests. Earlier this year, Washington withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear program. All other signatories to the landmark agreement, including Russia, China, and the EU, decided to stick to the deal, while blasting Trump for leaving.

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Converting Khashoggi into Cash

After two weeks of denying any connection to Khashoggi’s disappearance, Riyadh has admitted that he was killed by Saudi operatives but it wasn’t really on purpose.

Jim Jatras

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Authored by James George Jatras via The Strategic Culture Foundation:


The hazard of writing about the Saudis’ absurd gyrations as they seek to avoid blame for the murder of the late, not notably great journalist and Muslim Brotherhood activist Jamal Khashoggi is that by the time a sentence is finished, the landscape may have changed again.

As though right on cue, the narrative has just taken another sharp turn.

After two weeks of denying any connection to Khashoggi’s disappearance, Riyadh has ‘fessed up (sorta) and admitted that he was killed by Saudi operatives but it wasn’t really on purpose:

Y’see, it was kinda’f an ‘accident.’

Oops…

Y’see the guys were arguing, and … uh … a fistfight broke out.

Yeah, that’s it … a ‘fistfight.’

And before you know it poor Jamal had gone all to pieces.

Y’see?

Must’ve been a helluva fistfight.

The figurative digital ink wasn’t even dry on that whopper before American politicos in both parties were calling it out:

  • “To say that I am skeptical of the new Saudi narrative about Mr. Khashoggi is an understatement,” tweeted Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “First we were told Mr. Khashoggi supposedly left the consulate and there was blanket denial of any Saudi involvement. Now, a fight breaks out and he’s killed in the consulate, all without knowledge of Crown Prince. It’s hard to find this latest ‘explanation‘ as credible.”
  • California Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that the new Saudi explanation is “not credible.” “If Khashoggi was fighting inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, he was fighting for his life with people sent to capture or kill him,” Schiff said. “The kingdom and all involved in this brutal murder must be held accountable, and if the Trump administration will not take the lead, Congress must.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan must think he’s already died and gone to his eternal recreation in the amorous embraces of the dark-eyed houris. The acid test for the viability of Riyadh’s newest transparent lie is whether the Turks actually have, as they claim, live recordings of Khashoggi’s interrogation, torture, murder, and dismemberment (not necessarily in that order) – and if they do, when Erdogan decides it’s the right time to release them.

Erdogan has got the Saudis over a barrel and he’ll squeeze everything he can out of them.

From the beginning, the Khashoggi story wasn’t really about the fate of one man. The Saudis have been getting away with bloody murder, literally, for years. They’re daily slaughtering the civilian population of Yemen with American and British help, with barely a ho-hum from the sensitive consciences always ready to invoke the so-called “responsibility to protect” Muslims in Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya, Syria, Xinjiang, Rakhine, and so forth.

Where’s the responsibility not to help a crazed bunch of Wahhabist head-choppers kill people?

But now, just one guy meets a grisly end and suddenly it’s the most important homicide since the Lindbergh baby.

What gives?

Is it because Khashoggi was part of the MSM aristocracy, on account of his relationship with the Washington Post?

Was it because of his other, darker, connections? As related by Moon of Alabama: “Khashoggi was a rather shady guy. A ‘journalist’ who was also an operator for Saudi and U.S. intelligence services. He was an early recruit of the Muslim Brotherhood.” This relationship, writes MoA, touches on the interests of pretty much everyone in the region:

“The Ottoman empire ruled over much of the Arab world. The neo-Ottoman wannabe-Sultan Recep Tayyip Erdogan would like to regain that historic position for Turkey. His main competition in this are the al-Sauds. They have much more money and are strategically aligned with Israel and the United States, while Turkey under Erdogan is more or less isolated. The religious-political element of the competition is represented on one side by the Muslim Brotherhood, ‘democratic’ Islamists to which Erdogan belongs, and the Wahhabi absolutists on the other side.”

With the noose tightening around Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), the risible fistfight cock-and-bull story is likely to be the best they can come up with. US President Donald Trump’s having offered his “rogue killers” opening suggests he’s willing to play along. Nobody will really be fooled, but MbS will hope he can persuade important people to pretend they are fooled.

That will mean spreading around a lot of cash. The new alchemy of converting Khashoggi dead into financial gain for the living is just one part of an obvious scheme to pull off what Libya’s Muammar Kaddafi managed after the 1988 Lockerbie bombing: offer up some underlings as the fall guys and let the top man evade responsibility. (KARMA ALERT: That didn’t do Kaddafi any good in the long run.)

In the Saudi case the Lockerbie dodge will be harder, as there are already pictures of men at the Istanbul Consulate General identified as close associates of MbS. But they’ll give it the old madrasa try anyway since it’s all they’ve got.Firings and arrests have started and one suspect has already died in a suspicious automobile “accident.” Heads will roll!

Saving MbS’s skin and his succession to the throne of his doddering father may depend on how many of the usual recipients of Saudi – let’s be honest – bribery and influence peddling will find sufficient pecuniary reason to go along. Saudi Arabia’s unofficial motto with respect to the US establishment might as well be: “The green poultice heals all wounds.”

Anyway, that’s been their experience up to now, but it also in part reflects the same arrogance that made MbS think he could continue to get away with anything. (It’s not shooting someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue, but it’s close.) Whether spreading cash around will continue to have the same salubrious effect it always has had in the past remains to be seen.

To be sure, Trump may succeed in shaking the Saudi date palm for additional billions for arms sales. That won’t necessarily turn around an image problem that may not have a remedy. But still, count on more cash going to high-price lobbying and image-control shops eager to make obscene money working for their obscene client. Some big American names are dropping are dropping Riyadh in a sudden fit of fastidiousness, but you can bet others will be eager to step into their Guccis, both in the US and in the United Kingdom. (It should never be forgotten how closely linked the US and UK establishments are in the Middle East, and to the Saudis in particular.)

It still might not work though. No matter how much expensive PR lipstick the spinmeisters put on this pig, that won’t make it kissable. It’s still a pig.

Others benefitting from hanging Khashoggi’s death around MbS’s neck are:

  • Qatar (after last year’s invasion scare, there’s no doubt a bit of Schadenfreude and (figurative) champagne corks popping in Doha over MbS’s discomfiture. As one source close to the ruling al-Thani family relates, “The Qataris are stunned speechless at Saudi incompetence!” You just can’t get good help these days).

Among the losers one must count Israel and especially Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. MbS, with his contrived image as the reformer, was the Sunni “beard” he needed to get the US to assemble an “Arab NATO” (as though one NATO weren’t bad enough!) and eliminate Iran for him. It remains to be seen how far that agenda has been set back.

Whether or not MbS survives or is removed – perhaps with extreme prejudice – there’s no doubt Saudi Arabia is the big loser. Question are being asked that should have been asked years ago. As Srdja Trifkovic comments in Chronicles magazine:

“The crown prince’s recklessness in ordering the murder of Khashoggi has demonstrated that he is just a standard despot, a Mafia don with oil presiding over an extended cleptocracy of inbred parasites. The KSA will not be reformed because it is structurally not capable of reform. The regime in Riyadh which stops being a playground of great wealth, protected by a large investment in theocratic excess, would not be ‘Saudi’ any longer. Saudia delenda est.”

The first Saudi state, the Emirate of Diriyah, went belly up in 1818, with the death of head of the house of al-Saud, Abdullah bin Saud – actually, literally with his head hung on a gate in Constantinople by Erdogan’s Ottoman predecessor, Sultan Mahmud II.

The second Saudi state, Emirate of Nejd, likewise folded in 1891.

It’s long past time this third and current abomination joined its antecedents on the ash heap of history.

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