TAVISH Scott has dubbed the legal challenge against Northern Isles MP Alastair Carmichael “a political show trial funded by nationalists”.
The Shetland MSP spoke in the morning session of the first of four days of evidence scheduled at a specially convened Election Court in the Court of Session in Edinburgh.
Scott said his Liberal Democrat colleague “deserves a chance” to continue to serve his constituents.
Carmichael is due to give evidence in the afternoon session.
The Liberal Democrat MP’s election victory in May is being contested by four of his own constituents from Orkney. The case could trigger a by-election on the grounds that Carmichael lied about his involvement in the leaking of a memo intended to damage First Minister Nicola Sturgeon ahead of May’s general election.
Carmichael’s legal agent, Roddy Dunlop QC, argues that his actions were political, not personal.
Fiona Graham, Timothy Morrison, Phemie Matheson and Carolyn Welling argue that Carmichael damaged the chances of his opponents by making false statements.
Scott was among six witnesses due to give evidence in the hearing.
He said he stood by his statement to Shetland News on 27 May, which was presented as evidence. He said it was “A fair statement.”
Jonathan Mitchell QC, representing the petitioners, asked Scott: “The truth came out on 22 May. But before then, had you had any knowledge of the truth?”
Scott said: “The first I knew was on Sunday 10 May. Alistair told me that the statements he had made to Channel 4 News were wrong and there was a leak inquiry underway. I didn’t know a lot about it on the 10th of May.”
Mitchell QC then asked Scott whether Carmichael volunteered that information. Scott said: “Why would I ask him?” Mitchell QC told Scott: “You don’t need to feel defensive,” to which Scott replied: “I’m just very conscious that these are very political questions you are asking me. It feels like being on television.”
Mitchell QC told Scott: “You are not being accused of anything.”
Scott went on: “He made a political judgement, just as Alex Salmond did when he lied about legal advice on Scotland’s membership of the EU. I think that Alistair has apologised and he deserves a chance to serve the people of Orkney and Shetland. I think people think that this is a political show trial funded by the nationalists who don’t like opposition.”
Scott was the second witness of the morning. First was Fiona Graham, 57, who is one of the “Orkney four” who have brought the petition to court.
She spoke of her “shock” on hearing that Carmichael had admitted he sanctioned the release of the memo.
Asked whether she had a good opinion of Carmichael, Graham said: “Yes, I respected him despite our political differences. He worked hard and everyone in Shetland and Orkney had a strong opinion of him. I felt you could trust him completely.”
The court was shown footage from the Channel 4 News interview in which Carmichael said that the first he had heard of the memo was when he received a phone call from a journalist. But the MP later admitted he had in fact authorised a special adviser to leak it.
Asked for her reaction at the time, Graham said: “I was very shocked actually. My first reaction was how kind of stupid it was. It was hard to get your head around the fact that someone you respected and trusted so much would do such a thing as lie to us, the people of Orkney and Shetland.”
The bid to challenge Carmichael’s win raised more than £125,000 through online crowdfunding to cover legal costs. Supporters of Carmichael have taken £8,000 in a similar online fundraiser.
Carmichael has held the seat since 2001. In May he held onto the seat with a much-reduced majority of 817 votes over the SNP’s Danus Skene.
Witnesses’ evidence is not being broadcast live – as an earlier hearing was – but the submissions from each lawyer will be televised online by STV.
The memo, leaked to the Daily Telegraph, suggested that Sturgeon had told the French ambassador she would prefer to see David Cameron remain as Prime Minister, which both Sturgeon and the ambassador denied. Following a Cabinet Office investigation, Carmichael apologised to Sturgeon and accepted that “the details of the account are not correct”.