NICOLA Sturgeon has dared Alex Salmond to prove there was a conspiracy against him when he gives evidence to a Holyrood inquiry on Wednesday.
She said claims of a plot to ruin him were “completely baseless”.
The First Minister also denied her predecessor’s claim that she repeatedly misled parliament about controversial meetings the pair had about a Government sexual misconduct probe.
Ms Sturgeon got her defence in first as the Scottish Parliament prepared to publish Mr Salmond’s final tranche of evidence against her.
In it, Mr Salmond says his estranged predecessor knowingly misled MSPs and breached the Scottish Ministerial Code, a resignation offence Ms Sturgeon vehemently denies.
Publication should clear the way for Mr Salmond to testify under oath in person at the inquiry on Wednesday, a moment dreaded by the SNP leadership.
The inquiry is looking at how the Scottish Government bungled an in-house probe into sexual misconduct claims made against Mr Salmond in 2018.
The former SNP leader had the exercise set aside in a judicial review by showing it had been unfair, unlawful and “tainted by apparent bias” from the outset.
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The Government’s key mistake – appointing an investigating officer who had prior contact with Mr Salmond’s accusers instead of someone unconnected in breach of its own complaints procedure – left taxpayers with a £512,000 bill for his costs.
He was later charged with sexual assault but cleared of all counts at the High Court last March.
After the verdict he said he wanted to air evidence he had been allowed to present to the jury for legal reasons.
His supporters claim he was the victim of a high-level plot to destroy his reputation and stop him making a political comeback and rivalling his successor.
Speaking ahead of Mr Salmond’s submission being published, Ms Sturgeon told STV: “He has made claims, or he appears to be making claims or suggestions there was some kind of conspiracy against him or concerted campaign against him.
“There is not a shred of evidence about that, so this is the opportunity for him to replace insinuation and assertion with evidence.
“I don’t believe he can because I know what he is saying is not true but the burden of proof is on him. If he can’t provide that evidence he should stop making these claims about people because they’re not fair and deeply distressing.”
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The First Minister is also being investigated by the independent adviser on the ministerial code, former Irish prosecutor James Hamilton, over whether she lied to parliament.
Mr Salmond claims Ms Sturgeon misled parliament about the nature of three meetings the pair had in 2018 about the misconduct probe which the First Minister told MSPs had been undertaken in her capacity as SNP leader.
She denied lying to Holyrood, and said she stood by her previous statements to parliament, but refused to say if she would resign if she was found to have lied.
She said: “I haven’t breached the ministerial code but that’s a matter for the independent adviser on the code to determine and I will robustly refute any suggestions that I have done so, and I am not going to get ahead of that and start to talk in a hypothetical sense.
“In terms of the committee inquiry, I am actually quite relieved it is getting to this stage, it’s been a long time coming.
“My own appearance before it I think has been postponed four or five times, so next week hopefully I get the opportunity to address all of the claims that have been made about me and subject myself to legitimate scrutiny.
“The Scottish Government, of course, made a mistake in this. But this week it’s an opportunity for Alex Salmond – I hope he will come to the committee on Wednesday.”
The inquiry had refused to publish Mr Salmond’s initial version of the material in caser it breached court orders, data or privacy laws.
He then submitted a second, revised version to put publication “beyond doubt”, allowing the material to be included in the inquiry’s final report and be used to question witnesses.
The inquiry last week referred the matter up to Holyrood’s management group, the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body (SPCB), which agreed to publish the revised version.
That was welcomed by the opposition parties, but drew a furious reaction from the SNP, which accused the SPCB of risking the anonymity of female complainers in a court case.
The SNP’s former chief of communications, Kevin Pringle, yesterday said that had been “unwise” and contributed to the impression the party feared disclosure and scrutiny.
Ms Sturgeon is due to give her oral evidence next week.
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said: “Nicola Sturgeon sets up a straw man every time she is asked about what she knew and when of sexual misconduct claims involving Alex Salmond.
“This isn’t about a conspiracy, as she and other SNP figures have repeatedly suggested, at every opportunity they get.
“It’s about whether the First Minister mislead the Scottish Parliament and broke the Ministerial Code.
“Nicola Sturgeon is not only asking the public to believe that she forgot about a secret meeting where she apparently learned for the first time of sexual harassment complaints against her friend of 30 years, she’s now insisting that the meeting “never held any significance” to her.
“If that really was the moment she found out, then it’s absurd to try and claim that it was an insignificant meeting.
“The ruling party of government failed women and lost more than £500,000 of taxpayers’ money. That’s what this inquiry is about. Not the SNP civil war or any conspiracy theory.”