Barrister at Law James O’Neill offers some thoughts on the Skripal case and the recent judgement by Mr Justice Williams in the High Court
Let the jury consider the verdict” the King said. “No, No” said the Queen: “sentence first, verdict afterwards”. “Stuff and nonsense” said Alice.
The furore surrounding the alleged nerve gas poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia shows no signs of abating. It continuously puts one in mind of the quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland at the head of this article.
For those of us with fond of memories of some of the traditional virtues of common-law justice, such as the presumption of innocence, the onus of proof upon the accuser, a verdict based upon evidence beyond reasonable doubt, and a prohibition on prejudicial pre-trial comment, it all seems like a very distant past.
The latest development has been a group of nations, largely in the European Union, but also including United States, Canada, Australia and European minnows like Albania and Macedonia, joining the collective hysteria and expelling, at the time of writing, more than 100 Russian diplomats.
That action will achieve nothing, other than to the poison the cold war atmosphere eagerly promoted by the intellectual lightweights so prominent in the governments from United Kingdom to the United States to Australia. The few sane voices in this cacophony of nonsense, such as those of the governments of Portugal, Greece and Austria, or Die Linke’s Andreas Maurer in Germany who noted in various ways that not jumping to conclusions and actually waiting for the results of the now extant OPCW’s Technical Committee investigation, might be preferable to rushing headlong to a possible nuclear confrontation with Russia, are scarcely heard.
British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn made similar remarks, only to be savagely attacked by members of his own party, as well as Tory leaders such as May, Johnson and Williamson.
The careful and cautiously worded judgement of Mr Justice Williams released on 22 March 2018 has been largely ignored by the politicians and the mainstream media alike.
Justice Williams was delivering the judgement on an application by the Secretary of State for the Home Department for permission to be given for the taking of blood samples from the Skripals for analysis by the OPCW experts in accordance with the terms of the Convention on the Prevention of Chemical Weapons.
The Skripals were admitted to Salisbury Hospital on 4 March 2018 and it took until 14 March for the British government to invite the OPC W to assist in the technical evaluation of what had caused the Skripal’s illness.
The Judge did not comment on why it took 10 days for this invitation to issue, particularly as the Russian government had correctly pointed out that it should have been done much earlier in accordance with the article 9 of the Convention.
Indeed, May had issued peremptory demands for Russia to, in effect, prove its innocence within 36 hours. The application by the Home Department was necessary as the Skripals, because of their stated medical condition (in a coma, but stable) were unable to give an informed consent. The Judge presumed, probably correctly, if they were able to give consent they would do so. They have a greater interest than anyone else in determining who was responsible and holding them (or their government) to account.
The Russian government, which clearly was an interested party as among other reasons Ms Skripal was a Russian citizen, was not a party to the proceedings, nor, it seems, were they even advised that the application was being made. The Russian government have certainly stated that, and the British government has made no denial.
The absence of the Russians from the application would ordinarily have invited a query from the Judge. He may well have done so, but as the proceedings were held in camera, we cannot establish that. His Honour appears to have accepted a submission from Mr Sachdeva QC, acting for the Skripals, that the Russian authorities had made no attempt to seek access to the Skripals or their medical records.
This is prima facie highly improbable, particularly given the case’s high profile. The Russian government to the contrary has claimed that all their requests for access, medical details and related evidence were ignored or refused by the British government.
It is not possible to definitively resolve that conflict, but the weight of logic, common sense and the evidence we do have would tend to support the Russian position.
There is no reason at this point to question the integrity of the OCPW technical evaluation. It seems likely however, that they may well not be able to ascertain precisely what substance was used to affect the Skripals. Almost certainly, neither will they be able to specify its precise origins, much less who administered it. More than three weeks after the attack we still have no clear idea as to how the poison, if that is indeed what it is, was administered.
That qualified conclusion, which is surely known to the British government, may be a major reason why such a huge propaganda effort is currently being made before the likely inconclusive results are published. It may also account for the meaningless terminology used in statements by the UK government and others that the poison was “of a type developed by Russia.”
That statement in itself is inaccurate. It has zero evidential value, but is clearly seen as having a powerful propaganda effect. Most casual readers of the mainstream media or viewers of the BBC and their foreign equivalents will be unaware of any of the history of nerve agents, or their possession and use by multiple countries, not least the United Kingdom itself.
Perhaps the most depressing conclusion to be drawn from this saga is the one expressed by the commentator known as the Saker (What Happened to the West I was born in? 26 March 2018). He argues that during the previous Cold War, although the West was hardly a knight in shining armour, the rule of law did matter, as did some degree of critical thinking. Now, the West is ruled by an “ugly gang of ignorant, arrogant psychopaths”.
Their hubris will lead to making fatal miscalculations about the degree of Russian resolve, and the ability of Russia, (as was demonstrated so effectively by Putin in his address to the joint sitting of the Russian Parliament on 1 March 2018), that rather than “shutting up and going away”, as Williamson hoped, the simple fact is that Britain will be a heap of radioactive ashes long before Russia “goes away”.
It is significant that China’s Global Times, an official voice for the thinking of the Chinese government, sees the current attack on Russia as a prelude to a similar assault upon China as the crumbling Anglo-American Empire tries to maintain its hegemony. China has not joined the Western chorus of condemnation of Russia. Instead it sees what it describes as the “Russia China comprehensive strategic collaborative partnership” as the best safeguard against Western attack. It is for this reason that the Saker is probably too pessimistic. For the sake of our grandchildren one hopes that he was indeed wrong.