Scotland's Sturgeon under fire on handling of Salmond harassment case

EDINBURGH, Jan 15 - Scottish lawmakers will launch an inquiry into whether First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's pro-independence government has been even-handed in how it has treated sex harassment allegations against her mentor and predecessor Alex Salmond, political parties said on Tuesday.

The case, which has set the two most popular figures in Scottish nationalist politics against one another, has raised questions about Sturgeon's judgement and what she knew and when regarding the accusations.

Salmond denies wrongdoing and the case is currently being investigated by police.

Some political observers believe the spat could weaken Sturgeon's leadership and further complicate the prospects of any fresh Scottish independence campaign as Britain's exit from the European Union is played out.

On Monday, a Sturgeon adviser complained of an attempt to smear her. Salmond, who lost his parliamentary seat in last year's election, said last week there were forces trying to destroy him because he is a "political threat." Media reports have spoken of civil war in the Scottish National Party (SNP), Scotland's biggest party.

Salmond, who led an unsuccessful independence campaign which nevertheless bolstered the SNP in 2014, has denied any criminal conduct after being accused of sexually assaulting two members of staff at his official residence in 2013 while he held office as first minister.

Sturgeon has been criticised by political opponents for not immediately reporting to civil servants the first two of five meetings and telephone conversations she had with him after the investigation was launched last year.

Sturgeon has referred herself to a panel of independent advisers on ministerial code over the issue.

She said on Sunday she had acted appropriately and in good faith but added: "I have reflected carefully and understand that it is also important for Parliament and the wider public to be assured of that."

A former adviser to both Sturgeon and Salmond used a Sunday Times column this week to call for bold action to restore the credibility of the devolved Scottish government, which has wide powers over health, education and a portion of taxes.

"We need to understand everything that went wrong in the Salmond case if the deeper damage is to be mended," Kevin Pringle wrote. "Otherwise, generalised claims of government incompetence will be more likely to stick."