Nicola and Independence 419

I have been gently chided for not giving my reactions to the SNP conference, which I attended as a delegate.

Nicola’s major speech was very good. The media universally attempted to characterise it as kicking a new Independence referendum into the long grass. I did not hear it that way at all. I think they are clutching at the straw of her single mention of patience and perseverance, against the fact she used the word “Independent” or “Independence” an extraordinary 31 times in her speech. Of course she wishes to retain flexibility and an element of surprise, but as someone who has studied the matter extremely closely and who distrusts the highly paid SNP professional “elite” on this issue, I was reassured as to Nicola’s intentions.

The members are in extremely good heart and very confident. I was personally much touched by the many scores of individuals who bothered to come up to me and say they followed the blog. The conference agenda was somewhat bland, though fizzing with righteous anger at the effects of austerity on the vulnerable. My major criticism would be that far too high a percentage of total speaking time on the conference floor is given to MP’s, MSP’s and MEP’s. Constituency proposed motions, for example, were too often used as a showcase for the MP/MSP rather than introduced by an ordinary party member.

I dislike the political class now attached to the SNP in just the same way that I distrust the professional political class in every political party. The horrible Alex Bell should be a serious warning of the kind of false hypocrites that a salary will attract “to the cause”. Seeing MPs I knew as just punters campaigning in 2014, now walking proudly before power dressed entourages of paid staff, was a strangely unpleasant experience.

My major concern is that the SNP’s foreign policy and defence teams at Westminster appear to have been entirely captured by the UK establishment and indeed the security services. They have been willing and instant amplifiers of the Tories’ Russophobia.

It appears to me truly remarkable that I was not allowed to hire a room for a fringe meeting on Independence campaigning, but that the “Westminster Foundation for Democracy” – which is an FCO front and 90% FCO and DFID funded – was allowed a room on the fringe to hold this anti-Russian propaganda fest with a Ukrainian MP imported by the FCO.

Furthermore the meeting was co-hosted by the SNP and “Westminster Foundation for Democracy” and featured two SNP MPs.

I took issue with two other senior SNP figures last month over the party’s slavish devotion to what the UK intelligence services tell them.

The problem here is of course that the SNP is accepting a UK-centric vision of the world. This is a fundamental error, a category mistake. Because Russia is in an antagonistic relationship with the UK does not mean Russia should or will have an antagonistic relationship to an Independent Scotland.

Whatever happened in Salisbury, the root cause was spy games between Russia and the UK. Precisely the kind of spy games an independent Scotland must have no part of.

MI6 recruited Sergei Skripal as a traitor to Russia, who for money revealed secrets of his nation to MI6, including identities of agents. That is the root of the Salisbury events, and it is not the sort of thing an Independent Scotland will be doing. If an Independent Scotland is just going to behave like the UK in foreign affairs, carrying on neo-con foreign policy by illegitimate methods, I see no point in Scotland being independent. The Skripal affair, whatever really happened, is part of an entire system which most people in the Yes movement wish to get out of. We do not see the UK’s enemies as our enemies.

But the UK security services are our enemies. Scottish nationalism is defined in security service tasking as a threat to the UK and we are targets of the UK security services. The British government is not going to agree to another Independence referendum and we are going to have to win Independence, like the Catalans, in the teeth of every dirty abuse of British state power.

I would feel very much better if the SNP leaders, like Chris Law and John Nicholson both of whom I count as friends, would sometimes draw a deep breath, forget what they imbibed as Westminster MPs, and remember which side they are on.

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Sikunder Burnes: A Question Answered 54

When researching Alexander Burnes, one of the questions which kept nagging at me was whether he had any children by any of his Indian partners. I was unable to identify any individual Indian partners, other than the fact he had by the end of his career a harem of women from Kashmir. It would have been unusual if he did not have Indian partners right from the beginning of his career in India, but I could not establish that. Besides Burnes was unusual, as the story of his love for, and legacy to, the prostitute Emma Graham reveals.

Since the book was published I am very pleased to have been contacted by direct descendants of the Burnes family, now living in the United States. The family tradition of naming the eldest son James has continued down to the present day, and Mr James Burnes has provided me with photographs of a whole line of James Burnes’s.

But what is more he tells this rather heartwarming story. He recently sent away for a DNA ancestry test, of the type that identifies, among other things, others who have done the test and to whom you are related. The result threw up a senior Indian engineer, now retired and living in the United States, as a distant cousin. Contacted, the gentleman was delighted and said there was a family tradition that his great great grandmother had been the partner of Alexander Burnes.

Historians of course cannot generally give too much credit to that kind of oral history, but the DNA evidence validates it. Establishing family relationship by such DNA tests carries a high degree of certainty. While the ethnic group/origin profiling aspect of these tests is more open to criticism, I rather like it because it proves beyond dispute that we are all mongrels and that notions of ethnic purity are utter nonsense. Nadira found unexpectedly that her ancestry includes Jewish and Inuit, which is rather lovely.

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Metropolitan Police on “Chepiga” and “Mishkin”. 563

I have just received confirmation from the Metropolitan Police Press Bureau that both the European Arrest Warrant and Interpol Red Notice remain in the names of Boshirov and Petrov, with the caveat that both are probably aliases. Nothing has been issued in the name of Chepiga or Mishkin.

As for Bellingcat’s “conclusive and definitive evidence”, Scotland Yard repeated to me this afternoon that their earlier statement on Bellingcat’s allegations remains in force: “we are not going to comment on speculation about their identities.”

It is now a near certainty that Boshirov and Petrov are indeed fake identities. If the two were real people, it is inconceivable that by now their identities would not have been fully established with details of their history, lives, family and milieu. I do not apologise for exercising all due caution, rather than enthusiasm, about a narrative promoted to increase international tension with Russia, but am now convinced Petrov and Boshirov were not who they claimed.

But that is not to say that the information provided by NATO Photoshoppers’R’Us (Ukraine Branch) on alternative identities is genuine, either. I maintain the same rational scepticism exhibited by Scotland Yard on this, and it is a shame that the mainstream media neither does that, nor fairly reflects Scotland Yard’s position in their reporting.

Still less do I accept the British government’s narrative of the novichok poisoning, which remains full of wild surmise and apparent contradiction. No doubt further evidence will gradually emerge. The most dreadful thing about the whole saga is the death of poor Dawn Sturgess, and the most singular fact at present is that Boshirov and Petrov are only wanted in relation to the “attack on the Skripals”. There is no allegation against them by Scotland Yard or the Crown Prosecution Service over the far more serious matter of the death of Sturgess. That is a fascinating fact, massively under-reported.

I remain of the view that the best way forward would be for Putin to negotiate conditions under which Boshirov and Petrov might voluntarily come to the UK for trial. The conditions which I would suggest Russia propose are these:

1) A fully fair and open trial before a jury.
2) The entire trial to be fully public. No closed sessions nor secret evidence and no reporting restrictions.
3) No restrictions on witnesses who may be called, including the Skripals, Pablo Miller, Christopher Steele and other former and current members of the security services.
4) No restrictions on disclosure – all relevant material held by government must be given to the defence.

I strongly suspect that, if a trial would bring to public light something of the extent of the convoluted spy games that were being played out in Salisbury, we would find the British Government’s pretended thirst for justice would suddenly slam into reverse.

Sadly, it currently seems highly improbable that either justice will be served or the full truth be known.

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Squalid London 307

On the face of it, the Unexplained Wealth Order against Zamira Hajiyeva shows the UK cracking down on the torrent of corrupt money that gushes in to the City of London every single second. But dig deeper.

Hajiyev’s husband had fallen out of favour with the appallingly kleptocratic Aliev regime in Azerbaijan – a dictatorship whose corruption can be measured by the infallible indicator that Tony Blair is currently working for it. Hundreds of billions have been plundered from Azerbaijan’s oil revenue by the Azeri oligarchs.

So is the British government going after the very substantial assets in the UK of the ruling Aliev family? No. Is it going after the very substantial assets in the UK of the oligarchs surrounding the Aliev family? No. It is only going after almost the only Azeri oligarch who fell foul of the regime, and is taking an action which the Baku dictator will applaud rather than decry.

While her father was still dictator of Uzbekistan, Gulnara Karimova was subject to seizure of looted wealth and investigation in Switzerland, France and Sweden, among others. In the UK, where she had a home and very substantial assets, no action whatsoever.

What are we to make of Theresa May’s huffing and puffing about the Skripal affair, when the UK’s richest resident is Alisher Usmanov, who is Vladimir Putin’s old flatmate, right hand man in the media and business world and chairman of Gazprominvestholdings? There is no chance whatsoever any action will be taken against Usmanov, who acquired his assets in the most dubious manner imaginable. Usmanov is far too entrenched in the City.

These people interact with the British “elite” in any number of surprising ways. Claudia Winkleman’s husband made big money from producing a vanity film project for the Azeri dictator’s daughter. Former Foreign Secretary Dr David Owen is Usmanov’s factotum in the UK. Just two of many thousands of links that tie the UK’s gilded elite in with the looted wealth.

The Conservative Party has directly received donations totaling over £3 million from Russian oligarchs. That buys a lot of influence. But more important still is the influence of the City of London, where wideboy bankers grow rich on the World’s most sophisticated and “respectable” money laundering operation. While the Tories are determined to bluster us into a new cold war to benefit the military, industrial and security complex, none of the sanctions taken to date and none that will be taken have had any serious deleterious effect on the holders of the hundreds of billions of money looted from the Russian people during the Western mandated and organised privatisation of Russia’s mineral and industrial assets. Even as false rage over Salisbury fills the airwaves, the oligarchs are privately being reassured their money and lifestyles are safe.

And of course, the appalling Saudi Regime can imprison and execute as many dissidents and feminists as it wishes, and western governments and media will still applaud its “modernisation programme”. Western governments will still lust after lucrative arms deals to supply the bombs that blow apart Yemeni schoolchildren. And the Saudi regime can gruesomely murder as many journalists as they wish abroad, with no fear whatsoever of any action against them by the UK.

In a United Kingdom dominated by the cesspit that is the City of London, it is not just that money talks. It is that nobody else is heard.

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Bikini Girls and Cyberwars 937

The Times claims to have identified the Kremlin’s latest secret weapon in Cyberwars – “Bikini Girl” @Organicerica. Except there is no evidence @Organicerica has any Russian links or promotes any Russian interests.

It does appear likely that @Organicerica is a bot. The Times claims this is proven by the timing and regularity of the postings (interesting as they claim the same kind of activity pattern proves nothing in the case of Philip Cross). I am prepared to accept, for the sake of argument, that @Organicerica is a bot, or at best a young woman running an automated posting programme.

But what is the output? Promotion of organic restaurants in Seattle. Environmental campaigning particularly against pesticides and genetically modified food. Nothing whatsoever on wider politics, foreign policy, Clinton. And nothing whatsoever related to Russia.

What kind of mindset do you need to have, automatically to equate opposition to Monsanto and to chlorinated chicken with being an agent of the Kremlin? Why is The Times publishing this absolute rubbish? It says something both about the quite hysterical Russophobia gripping the media and political class, and about the desire to delegitimise environmental activism, as witness the jailing of the anti-fracking protestors (against which jailing 1,000 academics have now signed a letter of protest).

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Taking the Radical Road with AUOB 392

The radical road up Salisbury Crags got its name because pro-democracy labourers building it held meetings there to avoid bans within the city of Edinburgh, back in the era of Peterloo. This is precisely where Historic Environment Scotland are banning tomorrow’s Independence rally, and if we accept it we are turning our back on our heritage.

As somebody who has addressed half a million people in Hyde Park, I find the notion that political events may not be held in Royal Parks ludicrously spurious. Holyrood Park is a park – the clue is in the name. We are not asking to occupy the Palace. Where can you hold a political rally if not in a park?

In Stirling, the AUOB march was forced by the council on a route to Bannockburn that avoided the town centre entirely and wandered through leafy lanes to ensure nobody could see the demonstration. What is happening in Edinburgh is still worse.

I have been constantly explaining that we are now in a Catalan situation. The Establishment will do everything they can to prevent a second Independence Referendum, and local authority offices, quangos and media outlets form their outward defensive barriers – before you even get to the Scottish Office, and the dirty tricks that will be played by the UK security services.

The Tories have already announced that Westminster will not agree to another Indyref before 2027. We have a fundamental stand to make on whether we accept that a parliament in England dominated massively by representatives of England, has a veto on the self-determination of the Scottish people.

One day, all supporters of Independence are going to be forced to get their heads round the fact that London is going for the Madrid solution, and we are not going to achieve Independence without using peaceful, non-violent routes which are nevertheless going to be deemed illegal by the Establishment. Making a political speech in a Royal Park tomorrow is precisely the start of such challenges.

Our rally starts in Johnstone Terrace, where my father was born, and proceeds right past my current home. This is my ground and I am, as a citizen, going to stand for my rights here.

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Direct Action and the British State 318

The draconian sentencing to jail of anti-fracking activists for non-violent direct action has received insufficient attention. It is a confident state that can undertake to bring back a level of repression not seen for decades – eight decades, in fact, since environmental activists received this kind of lengthy jail sentence, despite generations of tree climbing and road blocking.

Non violent direct action has been an area of tacit complicity between state and protestors. I have over the years participated myself – the occupation of the building site of Torness nuclear power station was a defining moment for my generation in Scotland, and I will cheerfully admit I participated in criminal damage of plant and equipment. I have blocked the road at Faslane occasionally too. While a week or two of my life in jail always seemed a threat, the idea of 16 month jail sentences for such protest appeared a nightmare from a distant age.

The judge in the fracking case, Robert Altham, is evidently a vicious old Tory, descended by his own account from the judge who conducted the infamous Pendle witch trials. His parents, John and Linda Altham, have the same name as the owners of Althams, a company supplying the offshore oil and gas industry. The company is also Lancashire based and it seems very probable they are the same family. Given that the judiciary allowed a judge to handle Julian Assange’s bail hearing, despite the fact that she was married to a former Tory chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, who had started a consultancy together with the former head of MI6, I am not in the least surprised that a corrupt Establishment allows such prejudiced judges to act so viciously – in both cases.

The local community around the fracking protestors are overwhelmingly opposed to the development, and indeed the local council banned it but were overruled by the Tory government. To cite traffic disruption to the local community as the reason for the vicious jail sentences, when the local community supported the action and will suffer far worse disruption from the fracking itself, shows how dark and twisted is Altham’s logic of repression.

In the same week, we saw another assertion of state force against the people when the Tory Government, which has never polled above 28% in Scotland, calmly announced it would not permit another Scottish Independence referendum before 2027. The notion that the self-determination of the Scottish people is subject to a veto by an overwhelmingly English Westminster parliament is not one that most Scots would accept.

I have long argued that after the scare it gave Westminster in 2014, when Scottish Independence proved much more popular than the unionists had ever imagined, Scotland would next time face a Catalan situation rather than a 2014 rerun. That has now materialised. I cannot better this excellent article by James Kelly on the ramifications.

Indeed I believe that the widespread and vocal approval and endorsement of the Francoist beatings of Catalan voters, from governments and politicians all over Europe and from the European Commission, in the name of the “rule of law”, has helped form a political climate that led to, among other things, the Tory MEP’s defence of Orban and the jailing of the fracking protestors. Repressive, even violent, state power is the order of the day.

James Kelly is mildly optimistic about the SNP leadership taking up the challenge, as the Catalan government did. I am worried that there are too many with comfortable berths within the devolved UK settlement, who crave “respectability”, and do not have the stomach for a struggle if Westminster deems it illegal. But I do believe such haverers will find themselves swept aside by the Yes movement, should they stand in front of it without actually moving.

Which brings me back to the noble fracking activists. Like them and like the Catalan leaders, political prisoners for a year now, some of us Scottish nationalists may need to suffer on the road to Independence, from the vicious ill-will of a resurgent and emboldened unionist establishment. Some of the steps we need to take will be deemed illegal. Very few Independence movements have ever succeeded without that. We will also be subject to all kinds of dirty tricks and provocations from the UK security services. It is not going to be simple or comfortable. But if we meekly bow our heads to the alien Tory diktat, we do not deserve to be called a nation.

UPDATE:

I feel compelled to add an anecdote about the Torness occupation. It was billed as a demonstration and march to Torness from Dunbar. The site was protected by a high mesh fence topped with barbed wire. There was a massive police presence, concentrated at the gate. But we had to march alongside the fence for a long distance before reaching the gate, and protestors simply moved a haystack from the other side of the road up against the fence, then everyone scrambled over and dropped down the other side.

Tents sprang up everywhere, and within the same day stages, PA systems, catering units and all kinds of stuff appeared. The Police were passive and friendly in a way it is hard to imagine happening now. I cannot remember how long the occupation lasted, I was there several nights.

Now my confession. I was not given to vegetarian food or sleeping eight to a tent. Once the occupation was under way the police had us effectively blocked inside the site – the haystack mound was the other side of the fence and the gate remained secured. I therefore spent the first afternoon scraping a hole under the fence, and after dark wriggled out and walked in to Dunbar to stay the night in a hotel, before breaking back in again the next morning. I did this every night!

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Bellingcat’s Very Obviously Fake Chepiga Photo 580

Bellingcat’s attempts to gild the Chepiga lily are now becoming ludicrous. The photo they published today is a very obvious fake.

Many people have noticed that the photo of Chepiga on this wall appears to be hanging in completely different lighting conditions from the others. That is indeed a good point.

But there is a more important point here, and that is to do with sequencing. Except for Chepiga and Popov, who according to Belligncat also became a Hero of Russia in 2014, all of the people here are indeed openly and officially listed Heroes of Russia or, in the majority of cases, Heroes of the Soviet Union.

What is more, they are, as you would expect on a military honours wall, ranked in date order. ONLY CHEPIGA IS OUT OF DATE ORDER. The order runs top row let to right, then second row left to right, then bottom row left to right.
The bit of the bottom row we can see runs:
Karpushenko (2000), Ribak (2005), Maclov (2012), Popov (2014).

So why is Chepiga in a row of much earlier Heroes of the Soviet Union? Next in sequence in fact to Grigory Dobrunov who got his award in 1956!!!! The pictures are definitely otherwise all in date order.

The glaringly obvious answer – in line with the reflections anomaly – is that Chepiga’s “picture” has been photoshopped onto this wall. The military do not suddenly insert photos out of order and at random on an honours board. Bellingcat, however, have a track record of image manipulation.

None of which proves or disproves the Boshirov identification. It is however an important reminder to take Bellingcat as a source with a pinch of salt.

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Spy Games 931

Russia has its GRU in addition to its KGB (now FSB and SVR). The UK has its Defence Intelligence in addition to its MI6 and GCHQ. Much less high profile, Defence Intelligence is more analytical than operative – as indeed is GRU, Skripal was an analyst.

Defence Intelligence had its proudest modern moment when it refused to endorse MI6’s pack of lies on Iraqi WMD, and earned the hatred of MI6 and of Blair and Straw as a result. This was confirmed by the Chilcot report which stated that MI6 even actually hid some of the intelligence material from the Defence Intelligence Service to prevent their rubbishing it.

I hope you will forgive me for pointing out that the opposition of the Defence Intelligence to the Blair Dirty Dossier was first revealed in my memoir Murder in Samarkand, a decade before the Chilcot report confirmed it. It was one of the many reasons Straw attempted to block publication, and one of the many things revealed in my memoir – including of course the UK’s complicity in torture and extraordinary rendition – which the government claimed to be untrue, but in due course has been proved to be 100% accurate. As it should be, as Murder in Samarkand only recounts things I personally witnessed first hand.

As this is the last day of Banned Books Week, I hope you might further forgive me (and I know I am pushing it) if I mention my prequel to Murder in Samarkand, The Catholic Orangemen of Togo. I view it as a much better book, and I was bitterly disappointed when my publisher, who had bravely defied the government lawyers over Murder in Samarkand, backed down and pulled the publication of The Catholic Orangemen due to libel threats from mercenary commander Tim Spicer. It thus became a Banned Book. I privately printed and sold 1,000 copies, and as technology advanced more recently made it available on print on demand. (I know, Amazon…) But it remains a real regret it has reached so few people. You are welcome to download it entirely free here.
Anyway, after that lengthy advertorial let me get back to the DIS. DIS remain rather more attached to the truth than MI6, so when Defence Minister Gavin Williamson tweeted out a thrilled endorsement of Bellingcat’s work on Colonel Chepiga, DIS urgently advised that he delete it. Which he did.

Which is not to say DIS are sure it is not Chepiga; rather they believe – as would anyone with half a brain – that the Bellingcat photo falls a long way short of proof. The British security services have been unable to stand up the ID with facial recognition technology. The experts are describing the Boshirov/Chepiga identification as “possible”.

I have this information from an impeccable Whitehall source, who told me there is a concern in the security services that runs like this. They genuinely believe Boshirov and Petrov are GRU agents and the would-be assassins. (I judge that my source themself believes the security services really do think this). Bellingcat, while they are sometimes fed security service material, did not in fact get fed the Chepiga material by the CIA or MI6, whether or not through a cutout. The security services are worried the Chepiga ID may be a blind alley fed to Bellingcat’s sources by the FSB. If the UK government endorses it, this could be followed by the Russians producing Chepiga and apparently discrediting the entire British narrative.

Hence the fact no charge has been laid against Chepiga, and the charges are still in the name of “Boshirov”, plus the fact that no British minister or official has named Chepiga, with only the fool Williamson stepping out of line and being slapped down.

Please note I am not endorsing the views and beliefs of the British intelligence services; I am reporting them.

Russia is fascinating at the moment. Komsomolskaya Pravda reports Ministry of Interior identification experts unofficially endorsing the Chepiga/Boshirov identity. Now there is no way these experts in the Ministry of the Interior – who would not be hard for the authorities to single out – would have done that for Komsomolskaya Pravda without an official nod. Either the Russians are indeed egging on the British into a false identification, or some inter-agency rivalry is afoot in Russia. This follows on the very open report in Kommersant – which is very close to Putin – that opinion was divided in Chepiga’s home village.

None of which brings us an awful lot closer to the truth of what happened in Salisbury, which I suspect is a great deal more complicated than any official narrative. But it is a fascinating peek into a shadowy world most people never see inside, with which I was once familiar.

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“Boshirov” is probably not “Chepiga”. But he is also not “Boshirov”.

UPDATE: The Kommersant Evidence
Kommersant publishes interviews with people from Chepiga’s home village. The article makes clear he has not been seen there for many years. It states that opinions differ on whether Chepiga is Boshirov. One woman says she recognised Boshirov as Chepiga when he appeared on TV, especially the dark eyes, though she had not seen him since school. Another woman states it is not Chepiga as when she last saw him ten years ago he was already pretty bald, and he has a more open face, although the eyes are similarly brown.

Naturally mainstream media journalists are tweeting and publishing the man’s evidence and leaving out the woman’s evidence.

But the Kommersant article gives them a bigger challenge. Kommersant is owned by close Putin political ally, Putin’s former student flatmate, Chariman of Gazprominvestholdings and the UK’s richest resident, Alisher Usmanov. That Russia’s most authoritative paper, with ownership very close to Putin, is printing such open and honest reporting rather belies the “Russia is a dictatorship” narrative. And unlike the Guardian and BBC websites, on Kommersant website ordinary Russians can post freely their views on the case, and are.

One thing this does stand up is that Chepiga definitely exists.

The evidence mounts that Russia is not telling the truth about “Boshirov” and “Petrov”. If those were real identities, they would have been substantiated in depth by now. As we know of Yulia Skripal’s boyfriend, cat, cousin and grandmother, real depth on the lives and milieu of “Boshirov” and “Petrov” would be got out. It is plainly in the interests of Russia’s state and its oligarchy to establish that they truly exist, and concern for the privacy of individuals would be outweighed by that. The rights of the individual are not prioritised over the state interest in Russia.

But equally the identification of “Boshirov” with “Colonel Chepiga” is a nonsense.

The problem is with Bellingcat’s methodology. They did not start with any prior intelligence that “Chepiga” is “Boshirov”. They rather allegedly searched databases of GRU operatives of about the right age, then trawled photos in yearbooks of them until they found one that looked a bit like “Boshirov”. And guess what? It looks a bit like “Boshirov”. If you ignore the substantially different skull shape and nose.

Only the picture on the left is Chepiga. The two on the right are from “Boshirov’s” Russian passport application file, and the photo of “Boshirov” issued by Scotland Yard.

Like almost the entire internet, I assumed both black and white photos were from Chepiga’s files, and was willing to admit the identification of Chepiga with “Boshirov” as valid. But once you understand is that – as Bellingcat confirm if you read it closely – only the photo on the left is Chepiga, you start to ask questions.

The two guys on the right and the centre are undoubtedly the same person. But is the guy on the left the same, but younger?

Betaface.com, which runs industry standard software, gives the faces an 83% similarity, putting the probability of them being the same person at 2.8%.

By comparison it gives me a 72% identity with Chepiga and a 2.1% chance of being him.

There is a superficial resemblance. But if you take the standard ratios used for facial recognition, you get a very different story. If you draw a line between the centre of the pupils of the two guys centre and right, and then take a perpendicular from that line to the tip of the nose, you get a key ratio. The two on the right both have a ratio of 100:75, which is unsurprising since they are the same person. The one on the left has a ratio of 100:68, which is very different.

To put that more simply, his nose is much shorter, and less certainly his eyes are further apart.

It is possible this could happen in photos but it still be the same person. The head would have to be tilted backward or forward at quite a sharp angle to alter these ratios, which does not seem to be the case. The camera could be positioned substantially above or below the subject, again not apparently the case. And the photo could be resized with height and width ratios changed. That would hard to detect.

But the three white dots across the bottom of the nose are particularly compelling (the middle one largely obscured by a red dot in the Chepiga photo). They illustrate that Chepiga has a snub nose and Boshirov something of a hook. Again, the software is reinforcing what they eye can plainly see.

However, there are also other ratios that are different. Chepiga has a narrower mouth compared to the distance between the pupils than the two photos of “Boshirov”, and that is measured on the same plane. The difference is 100-80 compared to 100-88. It is a ratio that can be changed by facial expression, but this does not seem to be the case here.

Professor Dame Sue Black of the University of Dundee is the world’s leading expert in facial forensic reconstruction. I once spent a fascinating lunch sitting next to her, while I was Rector. I shall contact her for her view on whether the guy on the left is the same person, and if she is kind enough to give me an opinion, I shall pass it on to you unadulterated.

This website is less definitive, but gives a nice clear result, and you can repeat it yourself without having to subscribe (unlike Betaface.com).

Again for comparison, I tried two photos of myself 12 years apart and got “from nearly the same person”.

It is worth repeating that the only evidence that Chepiga is Boshirov offered by Bellingcat is this photo. The rest of their article simply attempts to establish Chepiga’s career.

This is gross hypocrisy by Bellingcat, who have argued that scores of photos of White Helmets being Jihadi fighters are not valid evidence because you cannot safely recognise faces from photographs.

Yet Higgins now claims his facial identification of Chepiga as Boshirov as “definitive” and “conclusive”, despite the absence of moles, scars and blemishes. Higgins stands exposed as a quite disgusting hypocrite. Let me go further. I do not believe that Higgins did not take the elementary step of running facial recognition technology over the photos, and I believe he is hiding the results from you. Is it not also astonishing that the mainstream media have not done this simple test?

The bulk of the Bellingcat article is just trying to prove the reality of the existence of Chepiga. This is hard to evaluate, but as the evidence to link him to “Boshirov” is non-existent, is a different argument. Having set out to find a GRU officer of the same age who looks a bit like “Boshirov”, they trumpet repeatedly the fact that Chepiga is about the same age as evidence, in a crass display of circular argument.

This unofficial website does indeed name Chepiga as a Hero of the Russian Federation and recipient of 20 awards, as Bellingcat claims. But it is impossible to know if it is authentic, and by contrast there is no Chepiga on the official list of Heroes of the Russian Federation, for the stated 2014 or for any other year, which Bellingcat fail to mention. Their other documents and anonymous sources are unverifiable.

The photo of the military school honours arch, with Chepiga added right at the end and not quite in line, looks to me very suspect. My surmise so far would be that most likely Bellingcat’s source of supply is Ukrainian, and trying to tie the Skripal affair into the Ukrainian civil war via Chepiga.

My view of the most likely explanation on presently available evidence is this:

Boshirov is not Boshirov, and the Russian Government are lying.
Boshirov is not Chepiga, and Bellingcat are lying.
The whole Skripal novichok story still does not hang together, and the British government are lying.

I will continue to form my opinions as further evidence becomes available.

UPDATE Incredibly, at 13.15 on 27 September the BBC TV News ran the story showing only the two photos of “Boshirov”, which of course are the same person, and not showing the photo of Chepiga at all!

BBC News at One

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We Need to Talk about Indyref2 279

A senior SNP elected representative told me a couple of weeks ago that the party hierarchy were intent on making sure there would be strict control over debate at the upcoming conference. The leadership fear pressure from the membership on holding another Independence referendum, using the mandate won at the last Holyrood elections. You will recall that the SNP was elected on a promise of a new referendum in the event of a significant change in the status quo, specifically including Brexit.

Being well aware from the AUOB marches and other events that the grassroots are ready for another campaign, and with the opinion polls very encouraging, it seemed to me that the foot soldiers deserved at least to be able to voice an opinion on when and how they went into battle. So I suggested back to my friend that, as I am attending as a delegate, I would hold a fringe meeting within the Conference venue on the routes to Independence. This might include how we get a new Indyref in the face of Westminster opposition, its timing, and lessons learned for the Yes movement from 2014 on how to win it. The idea was also to explore other potential routes to Independence including a National Assembly.

They replied that I would not be allowed to hold a fringe meeting on Indyref2. I thought they were being over-dramatic. So I asked my friend the doughty Peter A Bell to join me as a speaker (he agreed in principle), and I was planning to ask James Kelly and Stuart Campbell as well, but first applied for a room in the Conference Centre so I could give them a date.

It didn’t go well.









So I can hire a room on the SNP fringe for the purposes of commercial promotion, but not to promote Scottish Independence.

The Scotsman or the rest of the Unionist media can hire a room for a meeting, but the pro-Independence new media is not allowed to hire a room – even though its readership is bigger than the Scotsman’s.

I am not asking to speak in the Conference, but just to hold a Fringe meeting. The Conference Fringe is where members can discuss things that are of political interest without claiming to be dictating, or in line with, party policy. I am a delegate offering to pay the going rate for the room, and rooms are available. As it happens, the policy we wish to discuss, Independence and how to use the mandate from the last Holyrood election, is bang in line with official party policy anyway.

I went into this with genuine innocence, not believing my friends’ prediction that a fringe event on Indyref2 would not be allowed. I do not imagine for a moment Ms Slider was giving her answers without consultation with Chief Executive Peter Murrell, who is also Nicola Sturgeon’s partner. When a party becomes so Stalinist in its organisation it will not even permit mildly dissenting voices – or just not totally subservient voices – even to express themselves on its fringe, it is not really democratic.

If anybody has managed to book a fringe meeting, and is looking for a speaker?

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Theresa May’s Bad Faith

The Salzburg debacle was a low point of British diplomacy, because neither Number 10 nor the Brexit ministers paid any attention to the information being provided by Britain’s Embassies, which was that there is fizzing resentment in major capitals at what is viewed as Theresa May’s rank bad faith.

Good faith is an intangible, but it is the most important asset you can have in diplomatic negotiations, and building up trust is the most important skill in international relations. The EU remains genuinely concerned for the future of Ireland, which unlike the UK is a continuing member.

In December, after hard talks, the UK signed up to the Joint Report as the basis for negotiation. This contained the famous “backstop” on North/South Ireland relations. It is worth looking on what the text of the “backstop” actually says.

49. The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to
its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible
with these overarching requirements. The United Kingdom’s intention is to achieve
these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible,
the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique
circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United
Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the
Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all island
economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.

What May is now saying is that it is impossible for Northern Ireland to maintain alignment with the rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union, when as per her Chequers plan the rest of the UK will not maintain that alignment. This would involve a border in the Irish Sea which, she repeatedly declaims, “no British government could accept”.

The problem is, she has already accepted it. There is no possible meaning of last December’s backstop agreement which does not involve profoundly different customs and regulatory rules for Northern Ireland, unless the UK remains part of the single market, which May has rejected. To state now that such difference for Northern Ireland is unacceptable for reasons of unionist fundamentalism, is too late. You signed up to it last December.

The humiliation of Salzburg occurred because there was never chance of any sympathy from EU member states for an attempt to dishonour the agreement of nine months ago. There is no way out of that conundrum. The government has belatedly remembered the existence of the FCO as a potential tool in international relations, and ambassadors in our Embassies in EU countries are currently staring in bafflement at dense and complex instructions urging them to convince their hosts that black is white.

I have refrained from comment on the Brexit negotiations, but among the rafts of mainstream media coverage, I have not seen this issue of May’s bad faith given the prominence it deserves. Whatever your stance on Brexit, conducting negotiations in this manner – the cliche of perfidious is in fact the best description – is a ludicrously ineffective way to behave. On the most profound political, economic and social transformation the UK has embarked on in decades, the Tory government is an utter shambles.

I personally changed my rose-tinted view of the EU after seeing its leaders line-up to applaud the Francoist paramilitary forces for clubbing grandmothers over the head for having the temerity to try to vote in Catalonia. My interest in Third Pillar cooperation ended there. But leaving the customs union appears to me a ridiculous act of self harm.

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Pro-Israeli Terror Threat at Labour Conference Covered Up By MSM

A fringe venue at the Labour conference was evacuated last night after the screening of a film about my friend Jackie Walker was cancelled by a terrorist bomb threat. Jackie, a black Jewish prominent critic of Israel, is currently among those suspended from the Labour Party over accusations of anti-semitism which are, in her case, nonsense.

What is astonishing is that the state and corporate media, which has made huge play around the entirely fake news of threats to pro-Israel MP Luciana Berger leading to her being given a police escort to protect her from ordinary delegates, has completely ignored this actual and disruptive pro-Israeli threat – except where they have reported the bomb threat, using the big lie technique, as a further example of anti-semitism in the Labour Party!

The Guardian’s report in this respect is simply unbelievable. Headed “Jewish event at Labour conference abandoned after bomb scare” it fails to note that Jewish Voice for Labour is a pro-Corbyn organisation and the film, “The Political Lynching of Jackie Walker”, exposes the evil machinations of the organised witch-hunt against Palestinian activists orchestrated by Labour Friends of Israel and the Israeli Embassy. It is not that the Guardian does not know this – it has carried several articles calling for Jackie Walker’s expulsion.

The attempt to spin this as the precise opposite of what it was continues on social media. This chap is followed on Twitter by the Foreign Office.

I want you to undertake a little mental exercise for me, and try it seriously. Just imagine the coverage on Newsnight, the Today Programme and Channel 4 News if a Labour Friends of Israel meeting had been cancelled by a bomb scare. Imagine through the experience of seeing or listening to the coverage, on each of those in turn, of a bomb threat to Labour Friends of Israel.

Done that?

Well the bomb threat to the pro-Palestinian rights Jewish Voice for Labour has so far received zero coverage on those programmes.

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Importing Jihadi Terror to the UK – Cui Bono?

If Osama Bin Laden was not sufficient warning that decades of money, arms and other support from the Western security services does not render a jihadi a friend of the West, then the Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi, should have opened British eyes forever to the danger. In collaboration with MI5, Abedi had been fighting in the ongoing proxy war for Western oil interests in Libya, before being rescued by the Royal Navy. Back home in Manchester, he carried out an attack of appalling violence against a primarily young and female target group.

So it would be very foolish indeed to rely on the fact that the jihadi logistic support and propaganda group the White Helmets is largely British government funded, to expect its members who are now, like Abedi, being brought into the UK, to behave as quiet citizens. The links of the White Helmets to Al-Nusra and Al-Shams and other jihadi groups are deep – they chose to be evacuated to Idlib together from numerous sites. The reason there is no substantial corpus of independently filmed evidence of the White Helmets’ work is that they co-operate with people who would chop off western journalists’ heads on sight. In many well-attested cases, they are the same people.

In ending all funding to the White Helmets, the Dutch government did not wish to be confrontational towards the other neo-conservative governments who are funding and exploiting the propaganda from the White Helmets. Their report was therefore diplomatically phrased. Funding for the White Helmets may have “inadvertently” fallen into the hands of armed extremists, while unacceptable contact between the White Helmets and extreme jihadists was “inevitable” in the areas they operated.

Thanks to social media, there is an awareness among the UK’s general population of who the White Helmets really are, that belies the solidarity of the entire political and media class in maintaining the official fiction. Even the arch government supporting Daily Telegraph in reporting the story of White Helmets’ admittance to the UK, has a majority of readers’ comments pointing out the true nature of the White Helmets. (Being a Tory paper, there are naturally other comments which are simply Islamophobic).

Which is of course the irony of this. Entirely innocent British Muslims face the day to day surveillance state harassment of the Prevent programme, where Muslim students pursuing security studies are reported to the police for reading books on terrorism, and school pupils are reported for expressing opposition to the mass bombing of Libya by NATO or arms sales to Saudi Arabia. I cannot give a talk in a university about Palestine without a Prevent strategy risk assessment being formally compiled by the university authorities and approved by the police.

Yet not only has the largest terrorist attack of the last decade been committed by somebody working with MI5 and brought into the country by the Royal Navy, we are now importing jihadis with no prior connection to the UK other than receipt of British government funding.

Britain has never had larger or better-funded security services. As a major economic interest in its own right, the “security industry” has grown into a major component of the military industrial complex. Just as the arms industry requires external enemies, the security industry requires internal enemies. It is notable that many of the “foiled” terrorist plots of the last decade involved prior MI5 contact, sometimes bordering on agent provocateur operations. “Prevent” produces enemies who are not actually enemies at all.

Nobody has consciously decided to import the White Helmets to maintain the internal terrorist threat in the UK. But institutions, on analysis over time, almost always promote their institutional interest. Increasing the terrorist threat in the UK undeniably serves the economic self-interest of the security industry. Just as the promotion of war and internal tension has always benefited the arms industry and the rest of the military industrial complex. Importing the White Helmets into the UK is obviously nuts if your purpose is to minimise jihadi activity in the UK. So we have to ask, is that really the purpose?

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The Incredible Case of Boshirov and Petrov’s Visas 430

The Metropolitan Police made one statement in the Skripal case which is plainly untrue; they claimed not to know on what kind of visa Boshirov and Petrov were travelling. As they knew the passports they used, and had footage of them coming through the airport, that is impossible. The Border Force could tell them in 30 seconds flat.

To get a UK visa Boshirov and Petrov would have had to attend the UK Visa Application Centre in Moscow. There not only would their photographs be taken, but their fingerprints would have been taken and, if in the last few years, their irises scanned. The Metropolitan Police would naturally have obtained their fingerprints from the Visa Application.

One thing of which we can be certain is that their fingerprints are not on the perfume bottle or packaging found in Charlie Rowley’s home. We can be certain of that because no charges have been brought against the two in relation to the death of Dawn Sturgess, and we know the police have their fingerprints. The fact of there being no credible evidence, according to either the Metropolitan Police or the Crown Prosecution Service, to link them to the Amesbury poisoning, has profound implications.

Why the Metropolitan Police were so coy about telling us what kind of visa the pair held, points to a wider mystery. Why were they given the visas in the first place, and what story did they tell to get them? It is not easy for a Russian citizen, particularly an economically active male, to get past the UK Border Agency. The visa application process is very intrusive. They have to produce evidence of family and professional circumstances, including employment and address, evidence of funds, including at least three months of bank statements, and evidence of the purpose of the visit. These details are then actively checked out by the Visa Department.

If they had told the story to the visa section they told to Russia Today, that they were freelance traders in fitness products wanting to visit Salisbury Cathedral, they would have been refused a visa as being candidates for overstaying. They would have been judged not to have sufficiently stable employment in Russia to ensure they would return. So what story did Petrov and Boshirov give on their visa application, why were they given a visa, and what kind of visa? And why do the British authorities not want us to know the answer to these questions?

Which brings us to the claims of neo-conservative propaganda website Bellingcat. They claim together with the Russian Insider website to have obtained documentary evidence that Petrov and Boshirov’s passports were of a series issued only to Russian spies, and that their applications listed GRU headquarters as their address.

There are some problems with Bellingcat’s analysis. The first is that they also quote Russian website fontanka.ru as a source, but fontanka.ru actually say the precise opposite of what Bellingcat claim – that the passport number series is indeed a civilian one and civilians do have passports in that series.

Fontanka also state it is not unusual for the two to have close passport numbers – it merely means they applied together. On other points, fontanka.ru do confirm Bellingcat’s account of another suspected GRU officer having serial numbers close to those of Boshirov and Petrov.

But there is a bigger question of the authenticity of the documents themselves. Fontanka.ru is a blind alley – they are not the source of the documents, just commenting on them, and Bellingcat are just attempting the old trick of setting up a circular “confirmation”. Russian Insider is neither Russian nor an Insider. Its name is a false claim and it consists of a combination of western “experts” writing on Russia, and reprints from the Russian media. It has no track record of inside access to Russian government secrets or documents, and nor does Bellingcat.

What Bellingcat does have is a track record of shilling for the security services. Bellingcat claims its purpose is to clear up fake news, yet has been entirely opaque about the real source of its so-called documents.

MI6 have almost 40 officers in Russia, running hundreds of agents. The CIA has a multiple of that. They pool their information. Both the UK and US have large visa sections whose major function is the analysis of Russian passports, their types and numbers and what they tell about the individual.

We are to believe that Boshirov and Petrov were GRU agents whose identity was plainly obvious from their passports, who had no believable cover identities, but that neither the visa department nor MI6 (which two cooperate closely and all the time) knew they were giving visas to GRU agents. Yet this information was readily available to Bellingcat?

I do not know if the two are agents or just tourists. But the claimed evidence they were agents is, if genuine, so obvious that the two would have been under close surveillance throughout their stay in the UK. If the official story is true, then the failures of the UK visa department and MI6 are abject and shameful. As is the failure to take simple precautions for the Skripals’ security, like the inexplicable absence of CCTV covering the house of Sergei Skripal, an important ex-agent and defector supposedly under British protection.

A further thought. We are informed that Boshirov and Petrov left a trace of novichok in their hotel bedroom. How likely is it, really, that, the day before the professional assassination attempt, which involved handling an agent with which any contact could kill you, Boshirov and Petrov would prepare, not by resting, but by an all night drugs and sex session? Would you really not want the steadiest possible hand the next day? Would you really invite a prostitute into the room with the novichok perfume in it, and behave in a way that led to complaints and could have brought you to official notice?

Is it not astonishing that nobody in the corporate and state media has written that this behaviour is at all unlikely, while scores of “journalists” have written that visiting Salisbury as a tourist, and returning the next day because the visit was ruined by snow, would be highly unlikely?

To me, even more conclusively, we were informed by cold war propagandists like ex White House staffer Dan Kaszeta that the reason the Skripals were not killed is that novichok is degraded by water. To quote Kaszeta “Soap and water is quite good at decontaminating nerve agents”.

In which case it is extremely improbable that the agents handling the novichok, who allegedly had the novichok in their bedroom, would choose a hotel room which did not have an en suite bathroom. If I spilt some novichok on myself I would not want to be queuing in the corridor for the shower. The GRU may not be big on health and safety, but the idea that their agents chose not to have basic washing facilities available while handling the novichok is wildly improbable.

The only link of Boshirov and Petrov to the novichok is the trace in the hotel room. The identification there of a microscopic trace of novichok came from a single swab, all other swabs were negative, and the test could not be repeated even on the original positive sample. For other reasons given above, I absolutely doubt these two had novichok in that bedroom. Who they really are, and how much the security services knew about them, remain open questions.

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Extraordinary and Deliberate Lies from the Guardian

UPDATE One reason I was so stunned at the Guardian’s publication of these lies is that I had gone direct from the Ecuadorean Embassy to the Guardian building in Kings Cross to give an in-depth but off the record briefing to Euan MacAskill, perhaps their last journalist of real integrity, on the strategy for Julian. I told Euan that Russia was ruled out. I did not mention this yesterday as I greatly respect Euan and wanted to speak to him first. But on phoning the Guardian I find that Euan “retired” the day the lying article was published. That seems a very large coincidence.

I am just back from a family funeral – one of a succession – and a combination of circumstances had left me feeling pretty down lately, and not blogging much. But I have to drag myself to the keyboard to denounce a quite extraordinary set of deliberate lies published in the Guardian about a Russian plot to spring Julian Assange last December.

I was closely involved with Julian and with Fidel Narvaez of the Ecuadorean Embassy at the end of last year in discussing possible future destinations for Julian. It is not only the case that Russia did not figure in those plans, it is a fact that Julian directly ruled out the possibility of going to Russia as undesirable. Fidel Narvaez told the Guardian that there was no truth in their story, but the Guardian has instead chosen to run with “four anonymous sources” – about which sources it tells you no more than that.

I have no idea who the Guardian’s “anonymous sources” are, but I know 100% for certain that the entire story of a Russian plot to extract Julian from the Embassy last Christmas Eve is a complete and utter fabrication. I strongly suspect that, as usual, MI6 tool Luke Harding’s “anonymous sources” are in fact the UK security services, and this piece is entirely black propaganda produced by MI6.

It is very serious indeed when a newspaper like the Guardian prints a tissue of deliberate lies in order to spread fake news on behalf of the security services. I cannot find words eloquent enough to express the depth of my contempt for Harding and Katherine Viner, who have betrayed completely the values of journalism. The aim of the piece is evidently to add a further layer to the fake news of Wikileaks’ (non-existent) relationship to Russia as part of the “Hillary didn’t really lose” narrative. I am, frankly, rather shocked.

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Lynch Mob Mentality

I was caught in a twitterstorm of hatred yesterday, much of it led by mainstream media journalists like David Aaronovitch and Dan Hodges, for daring to suggest that the basic elements of Boshirov and Petrov’s story do in fact stack up. What became very plain quite quickly was that none of these people had any grasp of the detail of the suspects’ full twenty minute interview, but had just seen the short clips or quotes as presented by British corporate and state media.

As I explained in my last post, what first gave me some sympathy for the Russians’ story and drew me to look at it closer, was the raft of social media claims that there was no snow in Salisbury that weekend and Stonehenge had not been closed. In fact, Stonehenge was indeed closed on 3 March by heavy snow, as confirmed by English Heritage. So the story that they came to Salisbury on 3 March but could not go to Stonehenge because of heavy snow did stand up, contrary to almost the entire twittersphere.

Once there was some pushback of truth about this on social media, people started triumphantly posting the CCTV images from 4 March to prove that there was no snow lying in Central Salisbury on 4 March. But nobody ever said there was snow on 4 March – in fact Borisov and Petrov specifically stated that they learnt there was a thaw so they went back. However when they got there, they encountered heavy sleet and got drenched through. That accords precisely with the photographic evidence in which they are plainly drenched through.

Another extraordinary meme that causes hilarity on twitter is that Russians might be deterred by snow or cold weather.

Well, Russians are human beings just like us. They cope with cold weather at home because they have the right clothes. Boshirov and Petrov refer continually in the interview to cold, wet feet and again this is borne out by the photographic evidence – they were wearing sneakers unsuitable to the freak weather conditions that were prevalent in Salisbury on 3 and 4 March. They are indeed soaked through in the pictures, just as they said in the interview.

Russians are no more immune to cold and wet than you are.

Twitter is replete with claims that they were strange tourists, to be visiting a housing estate. No evidence has been produced anywhere that shows them on any housing estate. They were seen on CCTV camera walking up the A36 by the Shell station, some 400 yards from the Skripals’ house, which would require three turnings to get to that – turnings nobody saw them take (and they were on the wrong side of the road for the first turning, even though it would be very close). No evidence has been mentioned which puts them at the Skripals’ House.

Finally, it is everywhere asserted that it is very strange that Russians would take a weekend break holiday, and that if they did they could not possibly be interested in architecture or history. This is a simple expression of anti-Russian racism. Plainly before their interview – about which they were understandably nervous – they prepared what they were going to say, including checking up on what it was they expected to see in Salisbury because they realised they would very obviously be asked why they went. Because their answer was prepared does not make it untrue.

That literally people thousands of people have taken to twitter to mock that it is hilariously improbable that tourists might want to visit Salisbury Cathedral and Stonehenge, is a plain example of the irrationality that can overtake people when gripped by mob hatred.

I am astonished by the hatred that has been unleashed. The story of Gerry Conlon might, you would hope, give us pause as to presuming the guilt of somebody who just happened to be of the “enemy” nationality, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Despite the mocking mob, there is nothing inherently improbable in the tale told by the two men. What matters is whether they can be connected to the novichok, and here the safety of the identification of the microscopic traces of novichok allegedly found in their hotel bedroom is key. I am no scientist, but I have been told by someone who is, that if the particle(s) were as the police state so small as to be harmless to humans, they would be too small for mass spectrometry analysis and almost certainly could not be firmly identified other than as an organophosphate. Perhaps someone qualified might care to comment.

The hotel room novichok is the key question in this case.

Were I Vladimir Putin, I would persuade Boshirov and Petrov voluntarily to come to the UK and stand trial, on condition that it was a genuinely fair trial before a jury in which the entire proceedings, and all of the evidence, was open and public, and the Skripals and Pablo Miller might be called as witnesses and cross-examined. I have no doubt that the British government’s desire for justice would suddenly move into rapid retreat if their bluff was called in this way.

As for me, when I see a howling mob rushing to judgement and making at least some claims which are utterly unfounded, and when I see that mob fueled and egged on by information from the security services propagated by exactly the same mainstream media journalists who propagandised the lies about Iraqi WMD, I see it as my job to stand in the way of the mob and to ask cool questions. If that makes them hate me, then I must be having some impact.

So I ask this question again – and nobody so far has attempted to give me an answer. At what time did the Skripals touch their doorknob? Boshirov and Petrov arrived in Salisbury at 11.48 and could not have painted the doorknob before noon. The Skripals had left their house at 09.15, with their mobile phones switched off so they could not be geo-located. Their car was caught on CCTV on three cameras heading out of Salisbury to the North East. At 13.15 it was again caught on camera heading back in to the town centre from the North West.

How had the Skripals managed to get back to their home, and touch the door handle, in the hour between noon and 1pm, without being caught on any of the CCTV cameras that caught them going out and caught the Russian visitors so extensively? After this remarkably invisible journey, what time did they touch the door handle?

I am not going to begin to accept the guilt of Boshirov and Petrov until somebody answers that question. Dan Hodges? David Aaronovitch? Theresa May? Anybody?

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The Strange Russian Alibi

Like many, my first thought at the interview of Boshirov and Petrov – which apparently are indeed their names – is that they were very unconvincing. The interview itself seemed to be set up around a cramped table with a poor camera and lighting, and the interviewer seemed pretty hopeless at asking probing questions that would shed any real light.

I had in fact decided that their story was highly improbable, until I started seeing the storm of twitter posting, much of it from mainstream media journalists, which stated that individual things were impossible which were, in fact, not impossible at all.

The first and most obvious regards the weather on 3 and 4 March. It is in fact absolutely true that, if the two had gone down to Salisbury on 3 March with the intention of going to Stonehenge, they would have been unable to get there because of the snow. It is therefore perfectly possible that they went back the next day to try again; and public transport out of Salisbury was still severely disrupted, and many roads closed, on 4 March. Proof of this is not at all difficult to find.

This image is from the Salisbury Journal’s liveblog on 4 March.

Those mocking the idea that the pair were blocked by snow from visiting Stonehenge have pointed to the CCTV footage of central Salisbury not showing snow on the afternoon of 4 March. Well, that is central Salisbury, it had of course been salted and cleared. Outside there were drifts.

So that part of their story in fact turns out not to be implausible as social media is making out; in fact it fits precisely with the actual facts.

The second part of their story that has brought ridicule is the notion that two Russians would fly to the UK for the weekend and try to visit Salisbury. This ridicule has been very strange to me. Weekend breaks – arrive on Friday and return on Sunday – are a standard part of the holiday industry. Why is it apparently unthinkable that Russians fly on weekend breaks as well as British people?

Even more strange is the idea that it is wildly improbable for Russian visitors to wish to visit Salisbury cathedral and Stonehenge. Salisbury Cathedral is one of the most breathtaking achievements of Norman architecture, one of the great cathedrals of Europe. It attracts a great many foreign visitors. Stonehenge is world famous and a world heritage site. I went on holiday this year and visited Wurzburg to see the Bishop’s Palace, and then the winery cooperative at Sommerach. Because somebody does not choose to spend their leisure time on a beach in Benidorm does not make them a killer. Lots of people go to Salisbury Cathedral.

There seems to be a racist motif here – Russians cannot possibly have intellectual or historical interests, or afford weekend breaks.

The final meme which has worried me is “if they went to see the cathedral, why did they visit the Skripal house?” Well, no evidence at all has been presented that they visited the Skripal house. They were captured on CCTV walking past a petrol station 500 yards away – that is the closest they have been placed to the Skripal house.

The greater mystery about these two is, if they did visit the Skripal House and paint Novichok on the doorknob, why did they afterwards walk straight past the railway station again and head into Salisbury city centre, where they were caught window shopping in a coin and souvenir shop with apparently not a care in the world, before eventually returning to the train station? It seems a very strange attitude to a getaway after an attempted murder. In truth their demeanour throughout the photographs is consistent with their tourism story.

The Russians have so far presented this pair in a very unconvincing light. But on investigation, the elements of their story which are claimed to be wildly improbable are not inconsistent with the facts.

There remains the much larger question of the timing.

The Metropolitan Police state that Boshirov and Petrov did not arrive in Salisbury until 11.48 on the day of the poisoning. That means that they could not have applied a nerve agent to the Skripals’ doorknob before noon at the earliest. But there has never been any indication that the Skripals returned to their home after noon on Sunday 4 March. If they did so, they and/or their car somehow avoided all CCTV cameras. Remember they were caught by three CCTV cameras on leaving, and Borishov and Petrov were caught frequently on CCTV on arriving.

The Skripals were next seen on CCTV at 13.30, driving down Devizes road. After that their movements were clearly witnessed or recorded until their admission to hospital.

So even if the Skripals made an “invisible” trip home before being seen on Devizes Road, that means the very latest they could have touched the doorknob is 13.15. The longest possible gap between the novichok being placed on the doorknob and the Skripals touching it would have been one hour and 15 minutes. Do you recall all those “experts” leaping in to tell us that the “ten times deadlier than VX” nerve agent was not fatal because it had degraded overnight on the doorknob? Well that cannot be true. The time between application and contact was between a minute and (at most) just over an hour on this new timeline.

In general it is worth observing that the Skripals, and poor Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley, all managed to achieve almost complete CCTV invisibility in their widespread movements around Salisbury at the key times, while in contrast “Petrov and Boshirov” managed to be frequently caught in high quality all the time during their brief visit.

This is especially remarkable in the case of the Skripals’ location around noon on 4 March. The government can only maintain that they returned home at this time, as they insist they got the nerve agent from the doorknob. But why was their car so frequently caught on CCTV leaving, but not at all returning? It appears very much more probable that they came into contact with the nerve agent somewhere else, while they were out.

I shall write a further post on these timing questions shortly.

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The War on Raspberries

On a recent visit to the National Mining Museum in Newtongrange, I was taken slightly aback by the questions from young adults who knew nothing at all about Thatcher’s destruction of the coal mining industry or its motives. It is hard to realise that for an 18 year old today the miners’ strike is as chronologically distant an event as Dunkirk was to me.

My whole adult life has been defined by the changes initiated by Thatcher and continued by Tories and New Labour. It is hard to remember now the world where your employer could not, by law, sack you just because they wanted to, and where you could get state protection from rapacious landlords charging unfair rents. The destruction of heavy industry in order to destroy the strength of organised labour, and the privatisation of the monopoly utilities for the profit of the rich, was a transformation that is at the root of the mass misery we live amongst today.

There was one small and forgotten part of Thatcher’s attack on traditional working class lifestyle that you probably had to be in Dundee to remember. The war on berry pickers. The soft fruit of the Carse of Gowrie and the Tay Valley is an important part of the Scottish economy. There is currently much concern as to how, post-Brexit, labour is to be found to pick the fruit. Government proposals to issue visas for the purpose are an order of magnitude below what is needed, and local labour remains difficult to attract.

It did not used to be difficult, until around 1980 the Tories launched an extraordinary campaign to drive pickers out of the fields. Berry pickers, they decided, were an unacceptable part of the informal economy and were not declaring their income on benefits claims. Suddenly teams of besuited benefits inspectors started appearing among the raspberry canes demanding social security numbers. People signing on for the broo had to produce their hands for inspection for berry stains. There was a campaign in the rabidly Tory Courier newspaper which even alleged that Tayside berry pickers were a major source of funding to the IRA!

So people stopped going to pick berries. Who would give up their unemployment benefit for a few weeks back-breaking seasonal work, with all the delays and rigours of signing back on again?

Which suggests to me a possible solution to the problem. British people should be able to do up to three months seasonal agricultural work without any requirement to declare the income for either tax or benefit purposes. This would make the financial incentive sufficient to get people into the fields, would protect the economic benefit of the crops to the economy, and would be benefit neutral (the benefits are already being paid) and more or less tax neutral (the large majority who can do this would be nowhere near reaching the income tax threshold anyway).

I am not sure whether the Scottish government’s tax and benefit powers suffice to introduce this in Scotland alone, but it should be considered as a possible way forward throughout the UK.

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