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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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BREXIT chaos, as May’s cabinet crumbles (Video)

The Duran Quick Take: Episode 18.

Alex Christoforou

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The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris take a quick look at the various scenarios now facing a crumbling May government, as the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement is forcing cabinet members to resign in rapid succession. The weekend ahead is fraught with uncertainty for the UK and its position within, or outside, the European Union.

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If Theresa May’s ill-fated Brexit Withdrawal Agreement is eventually rejected this could trigger a vote of no confidence, snap elections or even a new referendum…

Here are six possible scenarios facing Theresa May and the UK (via The Guardian)

1 Parliament blocks Theresa May’s draft withdrawal agreement and political declarations

May faces an enormous task to win parliamentary approval, given that Labour, the SNP, the DUP and 51 Tories have said they will not vote for it.

If the remaining 27 EU member states sign off the draft agreement on 25 November, the government will have to win over MPs at a crucial vote in early December.

If May loses the vote, she has 21 days to put forward a new plan. If she wins, she is safe for now.

2 May withdraws the current draft agreement

The prime minister could decide that she will not get the draft agreement through parliament and could seek to renegotiate with the EU.

This would anger Tory backbenchers and Brussels and would be seen as a humiliation for her government. It might spark a leadership contest too.

3 Extend article 50

May could ask the European council to extend article 50, giving her more time to come up with a deal that could be passed by parliament – at present, the UK will leave on 29 March 2019.

Such a request would not necessarily be granted. Some EU governments are under pressure from populist parties to get the UK out of the EU as soon as possible.

4 Conservative MPs trigger a vote of no confidence in the prime minister

If Conservative MPs believe May is no longer fit for office, they could trigger a no-confidence vote.

Members of the European Research Group claim that Graham Brady, the chair of the powerful 1922 Committee, will receive the necessary 48 letters this week.

A vote could be held as soon as early next week. All Tory MPs would be asked to vote for or against their leader. If May wins, she cannot be challenged for at least 12 months. If she loses, there would be a leadership contest to decide who will become prime minister.

5 General election – three possible routes

If May fails to get support for the current deal, she could call a snap general election.

She would table a parliamentary vote for a general election that would have to be passed by two thirds of MPs. She would then set an election date, which could be by the end of January.

This is an unlikely option. May’s political credibility was severely damaged when she called a snap election in 2017, leading to the loss of the Conservative party’s majority.

Alternatively, a general election could be called if a simple majority of MPs vote that they have no confidence in the government. Seven Tory MPs, or all of the DUP MPs, would have to turn against the government for it to lose the vote, triggering a two-week cooling-off period. May would remain in office while MPs negotiate a new government.

Another route to a general election would be for the government to repeal or amend the Fixed-term Parliaments Act which creates a five-year period between general elections. A new act would have to be passed through both the Commons and the Lords – an unlikely scenario.

6 Second referendum

May could decide it is impossible to find a possible draft deal that will be approved by parliament and go for a people’s vote.

The meaningful vote could be amended to allow MPs to vote on whether the country holds a second referendum. It is unclear whether enough MPs would back a second referendum and May has ruled it out.

 

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Brexit Withdrawal Agreement may lead to Theresa May’s downfall (Video)

The Duran – News in Review – Episode 151.

Alex Christoforou

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The Brexit Withdrawal Agreement has been published and as many predicted, including Nigel Farage, the document is leading to the collapse of Theresa May’s government.

During an interview with iTV’s Piers Morgan, remain’s Alistair Campell and leave’s Nigel Farage, were calling May’s Brexit deal a complete disaster.

Via iTV

Alastair Campbell: “This doesn’t do remotely what was offered…what is the point”

“Parliament is at an impasse”

“We have to go back to the people” …”remain has to be on the ballot paper”

Nigel Farage:

“This is the worst deal in history. We are giving away in excess of 40B pounds in return for precisely nothing. Trapped still inside the European Union’s rulebook.

“Nothing has been achieved.”

“In any negotiation in life…the other side need to know that you are serious about walking away.”

“What monsieur Barnier knew from day one, is that at no point did Theresa May intend to walk away.”

“Fundamental matter of trust to the electors of our country and those who govern us.”

The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris discuss Theresa May’s Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, and why the deal is a full on victory for the European Union and a document of subjugation for the United Kingdom.

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Coming in at 585 pages, the draft agreement will be closely scrutinized over the coming days but here are some of the highlights as outlined by Zerohedge

  • UK and EU to use the best endeavours to supersede Ireland protocol by 2020
  • UK can request extension of the transition period any time before July 1st, 2020
  • EU, UK See Level-Playing Field Measures in Future Relationship
  • Transition period may be extended once up to date yet to be specified in the text
  • EU and UK shall establish single customs territory and Northern Ireland is in same customs territory as Great Britain

The future relationship document is less than seven pages long. It says the U.K. and EU are seeking a free-trade area with cooperation on customs and rules: “Comprehensive arrangements creating a free trade area combining deep regulatory and customs cooperation, underpinned by provisions ensuring a level playing field for open and fair competition.”

The wording might raise concerns among Brexiters who don’t want regulatory cooperation and the measures on fair competition could amount to shackling the U.K. to EU rules.

As Bloomberg’s Emma Ross-Thomas writes, “There’s a clear sense in the documents that we’re heading for a customs union in all but name. Firstly via the Irish backstop, and then via the future relationship.”

Separately, a government summary of the draft agreement suggests role for parliament in deciding whether to extend the transition or to move in to the backstop.

But perhaps most importantly, regarding the controversial issue of the Irish border, the future relationship document says both sides aim to replace the so-called backstop – the thorniest issue in the negotiations – with a “subsequent agreement that establishes alternative arrangements for ensuring the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland on a permanent footing.”

On this topic, recall that the U.K.’s fear was of being locked into the backstop arrangement indefinitely in the absence of a broader trade deal. The draft agreement includes a review process to try to give reassurance that the backstop would never be needed. Basically, the U.K. could choose to seek an extension to the transition period – where rules stay the same as they are currently – or opt to trigger the backstop conditions. In fact, as Bloomberg notes, the word “backstop,” which has been a sticking point over the Irish border for weeks, is mentioned only once in the text.

As Bloomberg further adds, the withdrawal agreement makes clear that the U.K. will remain in a single customs area with the EU until there’s a solution reached on the Irish border. It’s what Brexiteers hate, because it makes it more difficult for the U.K. to sign its own free-trade deals, which they regard as a key prize of Brexit.

Predictably, EU Commission President Juncker said decisive progress has been made in negotiations.

Meanwhile, as analysts comb over the documents, Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the European Research Group, has already written to Conservative lawmakers urging them to vote against the deal. He says:

  • May is handing over money for “little or nothing in return”
  • The agreement treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the U.K.
  • It will “lock” the U.K. into a customs union with the EU
  • It breaks the Tory election manifesto of 2017

The full document…

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4 resignations and counting: May’s government ‘falling apart before our eyes’ over Brexit deal

The beginning of the end for Theresa May’s government.

The Duran

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Via RT


Four high profile resignations have followed on the heels of Theresa May’s announcement that her cabinet has settled on a Brexit deal, with Labour claiming that the Conservative government is at risk of completely dissolving.

Shailesh Vara, the Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office was the first top official to resign after the prime minister announced that her cabinet had reached a draft EU withdrawal agreement.

An hour after his announcement, Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab – the man charged with negotiating and finalizing the deal – said he was stepping down, stating that the Brexit deal in its current form suffers from deep flaws. Esther McVey, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, submitted her letter of resignation shortly afterwards. More resignations have followed.

Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister, Jon Trickett, predicted that this is the beginning of the end for May’s government.

The government is falling apart before our eyes as for a second time the Brexit secretary has refused to back the prime minister’s Brexit plan. This so-called deal has unraveled before our eyes

Shailesh Vara: UK to be stuck in ‘a half-way house with no time limit’

Kicking off Thursday’s string of resignations, Vara didn’t mince words when describing his reservations about the cabinet-stamped Brexit deal.

Theresa May’s EU withdrawal agreement leaves the UK in a “halfway house with no time limit on when we will finally become a sovereign nation,” his letter of resignation states. Vara went on to warn that the draft agreement leaves a number of critical issues undecided, predicting that it “will take years to conclude” a trade deal with the bloc.

“We will be locked in a customs arrangement indefinitely, bound by rules determined by the EU over which we have no say,” he added.

Dominic Raab: Deal can’t be ‘reconciled’ with promises made to public

Announcing his resignation on Thursday morning, Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab tweeted: “I cannot in good conscience support the terms proposed for our deal with the EU.”

Raab claimed that the deal in its current form gives the EU veto power over the UK’s ability to annul the deal.

No democratic nation has ever signed up to be bound by such an extensive regime.

Former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith said that Raab’s resignation as Brexit secretary is “devastating” for May.

“It sounds like he has been ignored,” he told the BBC.

Raab’s departure will undoubtedly encourage other Brexit supporters to question the deal, political commentators have observed.

Esther McVey: Deal ‘does not honor’ Brexit referendum

Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey didn’t hold back when issuing her own letter of resignation. According to McVey, the deal “does not honour” the result of the Brexit referendum, in which a majority of Brits voted to leave the European Union.

Suella Braverman: ‘Unable to sincerely support’ deal

Suella Braverman, a junior minister in Britain’s Brexit ministry, issued her resignation on Thursday, saying that she couldn’t stomach the deal.

“I now find myself unable to sincerely support the deal agreed yesterday by cabinet,” she said in a letter posted on Twitter.

Suella Braverman, MP Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department for Exiting the EU © Global Look Press / Joel Goodman
Braverman said that the deal is not what the British people voted for, and threatened to tear the country apart.

“It prevents an unequivocal exit from a customs union with the EU,” she said.

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