Skripal case: Theresa May now demands Russia prove itself innocent

by Alexander Mercouris, originally published in the Duran

Theresa May in Parliament March 12 2018

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

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.feither
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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Michael McNulty
Michael McNulty
Mar 14, 2018 3:27 PM

“I can offer no evidence Russia did it so Russia must prove it didn’t.”
I think Hitler may win WWII about ninety years after he died.

John Marks
John Marks
Mar 13, 2018 11:41 PM

Theresa May reminds me of the Queen of Hearts’s treatment of Alice:
“Verdict first! Trial afterwards.”

Mar 13, 2018 7:19 PM

And a reminder:
„Arafat and Litvinenko: an Interesting Turn to a Mysterious Story“, http://wipokuli.wordpress.com/2013/11/13/arafat-and-litvinenko-an-interesting-turn-to-a-mysterious-story/

Mar 13, 2018 6:33 PM

Reblogged this on Worldtruth.

Mar 13, 2018 5:39 PM

The emotive desperation displayed by the British press and dubious MP’s is embarrassing. How can one have any faith in leadership when continually reason and logic are abandoned for stupidity, does Mrs May really believe her words?

Mar 13, 2018 4:38 PM

The UK government’s assessment of the ‘facts’ surrounding the episode in Salisbury aren’t really linked to legality or what actually transpired, it’s a political stance first and formost. It must have been the Russians because we all know what they’re like. It’s the kind of thing they do, isn’t it? Therefore, it must have been them! Of course, this is the logic and argumentation that characterizes the typical… witch hunt and the grotesque ‘trial’ that follows, where the verdict is given in advance. The accusations and charges, are, in themselves… proof of guilt, once one accepts that Satan and witch craft exists, finding it is just a secondary problem. Then we’ve got the Guardian and the rest of the press who are remarkably similar to an old-fashioned lynch mob McCarthy style. Gosh if those fuckers at the Guardian only knew the contempt I have for them and their cowardly and… Read more »

John Marks
John Marks
Mar 13, 2018 3:55 PM

As usual, the Grauniad swiftly closed down comment on Hinsliff’s “May is right . . .” as the comments weren’t following her narrative. I had submitted this: “The Russians are in Syria because they were the only ones prepared to defend a secular society against the invasion of psychopathic jihadis who, with the support of the West, have committed untold atrocities both in Syria and across the World – such as Manchester, remember? And why should we defend the far-right régime that, in an American-inspired coup, took over in Kiev, the cradle of the Russian state, and threatened ethnic cleansing of native Russians? And why would the Russians shoot themselves in the foot, making themselves everywhere unpopular, on the eve of an election, attempting bunglingly to murder a retired spy? By contrast, ex-MI6 agent Christopher Steele is due to be questioned by Congress. And Parliament is to question Bill Browder… Read more »

RJ Vela
RJ Vela
Mar 13, 2018 3:30 PM

The only real “nerve agent” here is the venomous disgorging of pure and senseless villification with which the UK government parliament and most certainly its Prime Minister TM, have wantonly exposed the sort of full on madness against the rules of fair diplomacy, as if something to abhor when it comes to Russia! Its utterly disgaceful to witness this in the UK. Even Rex Tilllerson’s backbiting and incendiary remarks which have recently followed seem more ingenuous and puppet like in comparison. However you are correct, there is no need to talk about Yemen, there is no need to talk about Brexit, there’s no need to talk about child abuse scandals, or any other pertinent issues that should be warranting the full cooperation of the British government. It is not possible to create crisis where there is none and then expect all things to end well and with your vindication.

Mar 13, 2018 2:50 PM

The inventor of ‘Novichok’ Nerve Agent (from 1980’s Soviet days), Vil Mirzayanov now living in USA, was arrested on October 22, 1992 and sent to Lefortovo prison for divulging state secrets. Public Information – Its an open formula anyone can find on the internet.
So CIA & MI6 had it – means May was lying in Parliament …………again ?
See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novichok_agent & http://warweapons.ru/proekt-foliant/
NOVICHOK formula is well known to MI6 & CIA
Twitter is alive with proof that Novichok formula is well known – Why did May Lie to Parliament ?

Thomas Peterson
Thomas Peterson
Mar 13, 2018 3:04 PM
Reply to  leruscino

The formula is not known because it doesnt exist. Novichok is a fiction.

Mar 13, 2018 6:28 PM

Thomas Peterson From the BBC: A group of American defence experts have arrived in Uzbekistan to start helping the Uzbeks dismantle and decontaminate one of the former Soviet Union’s largest chemical weapons testing facilities. US officials say the chemical research institute in western Uzbekistan was a major research site for a new generation of secret, highly lethal chemical weapons, known as Novichok. Congress has allocated up to $6m for the project, after the US signed an agreement on assistance to help dismantle the institute earlier in the year. Americans have already visited the desert near the Aral Sea The research centre is housed in a closed military complex and until the early 1990s was a major research site for the chemical weapons the Soviet Union still produced. The institute was staffed solely by Russians and it was only when they left in 1993, taking with them much of the equipment… Read more »

Thomas Peterson
Thomas Peterson
Mar 13, 2018 6:32 PM
Reply to  mohandeer

yes we keep hearing the word novichok, which originates with this wacky defector.
but what is the formula for this mythical novichok?
how do we know any novichok was ever made at this site?
just because a bbc article claims something about a site doesnt mean it’s real.

Mar 13, 2018 6:29 PM

Are you a troll ? I gave you the links to read the formulas………

Thomas Peterson
Thomas Peterson
Mar 13, 2018 6:34 PM
Reply to  leruscino

that wasnt the formula for the supposed 8 times more powerful than VX novichok.
that guy and his colleague published a lot of formulas of chemicals which they claimed were something to do with the nerve gas but were not the actual gas.
that’s one of them.

Mar 13, 2018 7:07 PM

You are right. We need to be really careful where we are getting our evidence. The wiki page has been ‘updated’ a zillion times in the last two days. (Sources so far: BBC; Radio Free Europe; Wiki.) Novichok seems to me to be ‘the latest’ as in ‘newbie’. It was a series of nerve agent upgraded from previous ones IN THE 80s, NOT upgraded from what we have today. Modern science will have surpassed anything made in the 80s. The Uzbek site would not have been decontaminated. That is NOT the US bioweapons programme. It would have been taken over by scientists from the US and research continued. It will now be a bioweapons/research lab along with all the other labs around the world including the new ones in the Ukraine (where there have been some strange outbreaks of diseases). Any ‘son of newbie’ would be US made. Welcome to… Read more »

Thomas Peterson
Thomas Peterson
Mar 13, 2018 10:13 PM
Reply to  Mikalina

there is no novichok, there is no nerve gas 8 times more toxic than VX.
it’s a fairy tale.

Mar 13, 2018 9:33 PM

In other, simpler words, the term “novichok” is just a convenient catch-all phrase for any sneaky chemical or poison gas or whatever the British government with its collection of Bullingdon Club science graduates wants to call some day-glo green stuff.
I wonder where novichok fits in this periodic table:

Mar 13, 2018 1:40 PM

Both Russia and Britain are members of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The OPCW has a protocol for the handling of accusations between member states. Russia has requested the UK to follow that protocol. So far the UK has declined to do so. It seems the UK is more interested in trial by media.

Mar 13, 2018 7:09 PM
Reply to  0use4msm

This was clearly and accurately reported by RT.

Mar 13, 2018 1:28 PM

Craig Murray has an excellent piece of analysis today. In my view Murray is generally a Russophobe but in this case that weakness-he is believer in the Litivinenko nonsense for example- works to his advantage.
He is very much inclined to blame Russia but the charges are so ludicrous that he cannot. The obvious candidate seems to be Mossad, very likely, in my opinion, working in cahoots with the CIA and MI5.

Mar 13, 2018 3:21 PM
Reply to  bevin

Nothing to do with Mossad – Skripal & Christoper Steele worked together on the Anti-Trump Dossier !
Yes look at Hillary……………& DNC + notice how many Democrat Candidates in the upcoming elections are ex-CIA operatives – Assange says 25%+ & he usually gets it right…….

Harry Law
Harry Law
Mar 13, 2018 1:27 PM

Audi alteram partem (or audiatur et altera pars) is a Latin phrase meaning “listen to the other side”, or “let the other side be heard as well”. It is the principle that no person should be judged without a fair hearing in which each party is given the opportunity to respond to the evidence against them.
On this occasion the Russians are being accused without being presented with any evidence or ability to test the nerve agent [Lavrov has said this is required under the Chemical weapons convention].
The same thing happened over the claim by the US/UK of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Missiles were sent killing men, women and children before any investigation was initiated, all contrary to International law. The US/UK are rogue states, Putin must hit back hard to any further illegal actions against them or their allies in Syria.

John Marks
John Marks
Mar 13, 2018 3:57 PM
Reply to  Harry Law

One man’s word is no man’s word
Justice needs that both be heard.
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

Mar 13, 2018 1:26 PM

The whole proceedings in Parliament were a farce. It might be helpful for Putin to present May with a list of illegal UK actions around the world, including ‘losing control of weapon systems for use in the genocide of Yemen’; ‘engaging in illegal trade in nuclear weapons from apartheid South Africa, leading to the unexplained disappearance of warheads’; ‘rogue security elements engaging in the murders of Gareth Williams and Dr David Kelly’; ‘use of false intelligence to justify an illegal war with Iraq, with a desire of the Russian State to prosecute Tony Blair for war crimes’; ‘collusion in the illegal overthrow of democratic governments in Iran in 1950s,, various independent African States from 1960s onwards etc’; and ‘widespread crimes committed against children by UK officials since time immemorial’. It is important that all charges are proven until refuted. A similar list for the USA and Israel is also appropriate…..… Read more »

Harry Stotle
Harry Stotle
Mar 13, 2018 1:23 PM

It appears the Guardian has built several new memory holes – deviate from the Putin is guilty orthodoxy and comments simply disappear.
As Alexander Mercouris suggests Britain has moved lock stock and barrel into full banana republic mode – the synergy between Britains beligerent right wing media, political class and judiciary is deeply disturbing.
Off-G aside where are the counterveiling reports placing the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal into its wider political context, one characterised by extreme demonisation of Russia, and near complete disregard of aggressive actions by other actors such as NATO, the US, as well as dear old Britain PLC, of course?
In such a volatile climate there is no way a credible investigation will ever be undertaken – I don’t know why the authorities don’t just round up staff-members at Zizzis with vaguely east European sounding names then throw away the key.

Mar 13, 2018 12:45 PM

And Brexit News has vanished along with Turkey’s invasion of Syria while the US threatens to bomb Assad. Expect more before the Russian elections including a Turkish-US agreement to take over Northern Syria and fight on against Assad. Russia is already unhappy about being lumbered with the role of protector of ME peace and all these things are designed to get them out. The Jihadis are set to win after all!