It's up to UK authorities to show they're guilty, which so far they've spectacularly failed to do
I am currently away for a few days and so haven’t been able to study the interview of Petrov and Boshirov in any great detail, though I have read the transcript and seen something of the reaction from a number of different quarters. I don’t really want to comment much on the credibility or otherwise of their claims, but rather on something far more important, which seems — not for the first time in this case — to have been largely forgotten (please do forgive any rough formatting on this piece — I’ve had to do it on an iPhone as I don’t have my laptop with me).
For some time now, I have been concerned that our generation has been busy burying some of the most cherished legal concepts that many of our forebears seemed to instinctively understand, and which were enshrined into English Common Law. Concepts such as innocent until proven guilty, and that the burden of proof rests with the prosecution to prove its case against the accused, rather than on the accused to prove his or her defense against the accusations.
My biggest initial gripe in the Salisbury case was that the British Government completely discarded these concepts and simply presented unsubstantiated accusations as if they were fact. Not only did this prejudice the investigation from the outset, but it went a long way towards poisoning the wells of justice. So much for their much vaunted “British Values”.
More recently, the same has been done again. The Metropolitan Police, The Crown Prosecution Service and Her Majesty’s Government (TMP/CPS/HMG) named two suspects in the case, stating that they had enough evidence to prosecute the men. They then presented at least some of that evidence, before — at least in the case of the Government and the media — then going on to treat the suspects as if it had been proven that they had brought something called “Novichok” into the country and had carried out an assassination attempt on 4th March at the home of Sergei Skripal at 47 Christie Miller Road, Salisbury.
But it has not been proven. Very far from it. Accusations are not convictions. Suspects are not culprits. And if we are going to pretend that the extraordinarily flimsy evidence against the two men — at least that presented in public — is enough to claim “case closed; culprits caught”, then we have basically torn up 1,000 years or so of legal history, and are pretty well lost as a nation.
All of which is a prelude to saying that whatever the two men said in their interview with Margarita Simonyan, the onus is absolutely not on them to make their case, nor to sound convincing, nor to defend themselves. No, the onus is absolutely on their accusers — TMP/CPS/HMG — to present the evidence they claim they have for their assertion that these men attempted to kill Sergei Skripal, Yulia Skripal and Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey.
And so if Petrov and Boshirov had stated in their interview that they went to Salisbury to see St. John’s Church in Lower Bemerton, where the great 17th century poet, George Herbert was minister, the Salisbury branches of Waitrose and Marks and Spencer’s, and Dauwalders coin and stamp shop, yes it would have been jolly strange, but it would also have been neither here nor there as far as the claims against them are concerned. Whether we find their claims plausible, totally implausible, or somewhere in between, I repeat: they are not the ones who need to convince us why they came to Salisbury and what they did there; it is TMP/CPS/HMG who need to convince us why they came to Salisbury and what they did whilst they were there, since they are the ones accusing.
I am aware that some will say this is not a courtroom, and that the claims so far have been made in the media and are therefore not subject to the same thresholds of evidence. However, the problem is that TMP/CPS/HMG:
A) Has presented its evidence (or at least part of it) in public, and
B) Has sent no further evidence to the Russian Attorney General, calling for the extradition of the men.
Which means that the accused — Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov — have presumably seen as much of the evidence against them as you and I have.
This is disturbing, and the reason given — that the Russian constitution does not allow for the extradition of suspects — is as pathetic as it is disingenuous. It is not TMP/CPS/HMG’s issue if the Russian Government refuses to extradite the suspects. The British side should simply present its evidence through the proper channels, but has instead chosen to do it through a press conference and the media, naming two men who under the law of the land are innocent until proven guilty. Having taken this course, they now have a duty to present the evidence they have against the men to the public.
As far as the interview itself goes, it was at least helpful in that it narrows things down to the following three possibilities:
1. The men are GU Intelligence Officers who came to Salisbury to assassinate Sergei Skripal by placing nerve agent on the handle of his front door. If this is the case, they were therefore lying through their teeth.
2. The men really did come to Salisbury on Saturday 3rd and Sunday 4th March as tourists. In which case not only are they telling the truth, but the claims against them are utterly false and contrived.
3. The men came to Salisbury, not as assassins, but to do something else which they cannot reveal, but they did so posing as tourists. In which case, there is an element of truth behind the tourist claims — they really did see the sights — but there is also an element of deception as they have not told the full story, even though it is not the one their accusers claim.
Much of the commentary in the British Press seems to assume that the onus is on Petrov and Boshirov to prove that 2 is true, and that 1 and 3 are false.
Not so. The onus is on TMP/CPS/HMG to
back up their claims with evidence, which basically means proving that number 1 is true, and that numbers 2 and 3 are false.
And so when a Downing Street spokesperson dismissed the men’s story, saying it was an insult to people’s intelligence, this is a mealy mouthed smokescreen, and an insult to our intelligence, designed to obscure the basic fact that it is for TMP/CPS/HMG to back up their accusations, not for the two men they have accused to back up their defence.
So although the question of what to make of Petrov’s and Boshirov’s claims is interesting, it is not the real one we should be asking. The real question is simply this: Have TMP/CPS/HMG presented credible evidence to back up their claims against the two? Let’s see.
The basic evidence they have advanced against them is as follows:
1. That they flew into London from Moscow on 2nd March, and flew back on 4th March.
2. That they visited Salisbury on 3rd and 4th March.
3. That they are GU Intelligence Officers.
4. That they visited the home of Sergei Skripal on 4th March, and there applied “Novichok” on the front door handle.
5. That traces of “Novichok” were found in the London hotel they were staying in.
Regarding points 1 and 2, both men have admitted that they are true. They did indeed fly into London from Moscow on 2nd March, and then back on 4th March. They did indeed visit Salisbury on 3rd and 4th March. So far then, the men agree with the assessment of TMP/CPS/HMG and the claims are therefore not incriminating.
Regarding point 3, although Theresa May claimed in her speech to the House of Commons that these men were GU officers (well, she said GRU), in his press conference of that same day, Neil Basu did not do the same. So far no evidence has been presented to back up Mrs May’s claim that the two men are intelligence officers; on the contrary, the fact that they turned out to have travelled under their real names, rather than using aliases, as alleged by the Metropolitan Police, if anything undermines the claim. As things stand, the assertion that they are GU officers is just that: an assertion backed up by nothing.
Regarding point 4, the Metropolitan Police showed a CCTV still of the two men walking near the Shell garage on Wilton Road at 11:48am on 4th March. Is this evidence that the two men went to Christie Miller Road to apply nerve agent to a door handle? No, it isn’t. It is evidence that they were on the Wilton Road at 11:48am and nothing more. Real evidence would be footage showing the two men at 47 Christie Miller Road just after noon on that day. If the Metropolitan Police want us to believe that the two men were there, they are going to have to do better than showing an image of them on a different street altogether. Perhaps even an image from the CCTV camera that Mr Skripal’s niece, Victoria, claims Mr Skripal had on his house.
And regarding point 5, if “Novichok” (or “Novichok or related agent” as Porton Down have referred to it) was found in the hotel room on 4th May:
Firstly, how on earth would the two men have left traces of it there and not in other places they visited?
Secondly, how did they themselves manage to avoid contamination?
Thirdly, why wasn’t the hotel immediately cordoned off when the discovery was made?
Fourthly, why were the guests who stayed in the hotel between the 4th March and 4th May not contacted and checked over?
Fifthly, why was the OPCW not informed?
And sixthly, why was the hotel owner not informed about nerve agent being found in his hotel until 6th September, when TV crews turned up outside his hotel?
In other words, unless a reasonable explanation for this clear negligence and failure to act responsibly can be given, we have every right to dismiss the claim that “Novichok” was found in the hotel room. I’m certainly not prepared to just accept the word of people who have acted in such a shoddy way as to not even inform the hotel owner of what was apparently found on his property, and nor should you.
To conclude, I don’t entirely know what to make of Petrov’s and Boshirov’s claims. The images of them in Salisbury City Centre, after the Metropolitan Police claim they had put “Novichok” on the door handle, do not remotely fit the bill of assassins having carried out their deed, but do possibly fit the bill of tourists looking around a city. On the other hand, their wandering up the Wilton Road certainly looks odd.
But as I say, they are under no obligation to prove their defence. The obligation is entirely on the shoulders of TMP/CPS/HMG to prove their case against the two men. And so far they have spectacularly failed to do so.