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NICOLA Sturgeon put her political neck on the line helping convicted conman Abdul Rauf. David Leask and Eddie Barnes ask why

ABDUL Rauf is a thief. He stole nearly 60,000 worth of pensions and benefits by forging the signatures of his customers more than 700 times when he ran an Edinburgh post office. He was jailed for four years for that crime. Then, last month, he admitted swindling another 80,000, this time in benefits he claimed after he failed to declare a 650-a-month income from a home he owns and rents out. The house, he said, "slipped his mind" – for five whole years.

Rauf, 59, would normally expect to find himself behind bars for such a second offence. And that's where he may still end up. But last week, he found a rare and influential ally in his battle to avoid jail: Scotland's second most powerful politician .

Nicola Sturgeon, the nation's Deputy First Minister, asked a sheriff in Glasgow to consider an alternative to custody for her fraudster constituent. Citing his poor health – Rauf has been described as a "walking heart attack" – Sturgeon "appealed" for clemency, for the court to go easy. Even though she knew he had already done time as a swindler.

Rauf has left the court for the security of his comfortable, 400,000 detached bungalow in an upmarket neighbourhood of Glasgow's Southside. His fate will be decided in May. His place in the dock, however, has effectively been taken by Sturgeon. The question now is whether her ministerial career will be finished long before her constituent is finally sentenced for his crimes.

Sturgeon last night stood charged by her political enemies of an "astonishing lack of judgment" and by her friends, albeit privately, of "uncharacteristic naivety". Suddenly, the anointed successor to First Minister Alex Salmond, the one-time "nippy sweetie" turned darling of her party, has run out of friends.

Labour's Scottish leader, Iain Gray, at First Minister's Questions, underlined the point with schoolyard bluntness. "Hands up," he asked the chamber, "if you would keep a benefits cheat out of prison." Nobody responded. Not even Salmond. The First Minister said Sturgeon had his "110 per cent" support. But after five times of asking, he still declined to say if he agreed that Rauf should escape jail.

So why would a politician regarded as one of the most effective operators in Scotland stoop so low as to speak up for a conman? Was it significant that Rauf was a member of Glasgow's politically important Asian community? And will Sturgeon's actions cost her her job?

STURGEON'S week of hell began on Wednesday in Glasgow Sheriff Court. Rauf, who had already pled guilty to benefits fraud, was facing a sentencing hearing. His solicitor, Matthew Berlow of Beltrami Berlow, was desperately trying to keep his client out of jail. Just a week before, he had helped another client, Sally Birnie, walk out of court with community service on a similar charge of defrauding nearly 60,000 worth of benefits in Edinburgh.

Berlow handed Rauf's QC, Donald Findlay, a letter from his client's constituency MSP. "We didn't even bat an eyelid," Berlow said yesterday. "Representations are not uncommon, whether it is from a priest or a councillor or whatever." The letter, in five paragraphs, said Rauf was in poor health, made worse by the "mistake" he had made. "He and his wife are anxious that a custodial sentence may be imposed by the court and of the further effect this will have on Mr Rauf's health and impact on his family life. I would appeal to the court to take the points raised here into account and consider alternatives to custodial sentences."

Berlow, in fact, thought the letter was "superfluous". He was more interested in medical evidence – proof, from doctors, that his client was not fit for jail. But the signature on the letter was nevertheless to send shockwaves from Glasgow Sheriff Court to Holyrood. It was signed by a Cabinet minister one heartbeat away from First Minister, the politician who oversees the appointment of Scotland's sheriffs and judges. Sturgeon was backing a conman as an MSP even while, as Deputy First Minister and Health Secretary, she was issuing robust statements demanding tough action against NHS fraud.

MPs and MSPs – ministers or otherwise – yesterday denied they routinely dished out character references to cons, or spoke up for them in court, even if lawyers described such representations as "not uncommon". One MP said that he had recently been confronted by a man who came into his constituency office offering a cheque for 10,000, in return for a character reference. The MP declared: "I told him not to darken my door again." But the man returned again when the MP was away – only to be given short shrift by his staff.

Sturgeon's decision to back Rauf has provoked serious questions about her judgment – and the nature of her relationship with the fraudster. She said she had first become aware of his case in July 2008, according to her letter to the court, "when he sought assistance from me after a search warrant was executed at his home by the Department of Work and Pensions and officers from Strathclyde Police". But she did not say how long she had known Rauf or whether she could vouch for his good character.

Labour and the Tories, sensing blood in the water, last week fired a stream of questions at Sturgeon over her relationship with the conman. Was Rauf a member of the SNP? Was he a donor? No, said the party. But there were no immediate answers to more detailed questioning. When did she first meet Rauf? Who suggested he should approach Sturgeon? Did he ask her to urge the court to keep him out of jail? Did any third party seek Sturgeon's help for Rauf? Did Rauf ever attend any SNP functions or fundraisers?

The official interrogation of Sturgeon has now been put off for this week's parliamentary recess. The Deputy First Minister will make a statement to the Scottish Parliament when it reconvenes next week – if, opposition backbenchers say, she is still in post.

There is no suggestion that Sturgeon accepted anything in return for helping Rauf. But last night there was a growing belief among her political enemies that the Rauf saga was a symptom of just how desperate the SNP is to "curry favour", as a political in-joke has it, with the Muslim Pakistani community on the Southside of Glasgow.

The Rauf letter row and other recent episodes – such as the SNP Government's funding of the SNP-linked Scottish Islamic Foundation – have placed a spotlight on the relationship between Scotland's governing party and the Asian community.

The SNP has good reason to want to win support among Muslims. First, they may hold the key to two constituencies, Govan in the Scottish Parliament and the overlapping Glasgow Central seat for Westminster. Second, the Nationalists can point to Asian support to underline their self-declared "civic" rather than "ethnic" nationalism, that they are the party of all Scots, regardless of their colour. Third – and some cynics say most importantly – Asian businessmen are generous benefactors in an age when political parties are starved of funds.

This was underlined earlier this month when it emerged that one Asian businessman had agreed to spend 9,000 to lunch with Salmond in the Scottish Parliament, sparking claims that the First Minister was abusing parliamentary facilities for party fundraising.

Labour has been just as keen to win Asian votes and Asian financial support. Labour's key weapon in Pollokshields has been the Sarwar family, which has been a force in the constituency for the last 12 years. The SNP's Asian network was formerly led by Bashir Ahmad, the first Muslim MSP and the founder of the Asians for Independence movement – but this key ambassador for the SNP died last year.

At the forthcoming UK general election the Sarwar clan – father Mohammed giving way to son Anas – will try to hold Glasgow Central for Labour against SNP challenger, Osama Saeed. The SNP, constituency insiders say, needs all the help it can to prop up Saeed, who lacks the Sarwars' family network or Ahmad's gravitas.

"There are two kinds of political affiliation," summed up one local leader. "Firstly, there's the affiliation you have to the party, and the SNP has won support in recent years largely because of the anger at the way Labour invaded Iraq. Then there's the personal affiliation. A lot of people support Sarwar because he may have helped them out with something and he gets credit for that. There is a relationship there."

So the local SNP – and Sturgeon's office – is well aware of the need to be seen to offer that kind of personal support for local Asian people, to prove that they are just as capable as the Sarwars. Did this influence Sturgeon's decision?

Another community leader adds: "You won't find any people around here who think that Nicola is corrupt. But does she want to score Brownie points for helping the local Asian community? Of course she does."

Another source adds that Sturgeon may have felt the need to do this even more since the death of Ahmad, which has left the SNP without its most popular and valuable Asian community leader. Saeed – even if he does support local club Rangers – was brought up in leafy Bishopbriggs, not the Pollokshields tenements, and his more aggressive style polarises local opinion.

Some sources last week suggested Ahmad may even have introduced Sturgeon to Rauf at some point. Humza Yousaf, Ahmad's former assistant and a leading light in Asians for Independence, casts doubt on that.

"I think the first time Rauf and Sturgeon met was at a constituency surgery. From my time with the late Mr Ahmad there was never any other type of introduction," he said yesterday.

Labour MSPs yesterday were clearly relishing the prospect of a major SNP scalp. One, referring to what many in the opposition felt was a Nationalist witch hunt against their former leader Wendy Alexander, said: "Some of our backbenchers were openly saying this was revenge for Wendy." Sturgeon is just as important to the SNP. Political commentator Gerry Hassan said: "Without Nicola there is not an obvious succession plan post-Salmond. Without Nicola, the SNP becomes more of a one-man band."

By yesterday, the SNP's chosen defence appeared to have collapsed. Sturgeon, according to the party line, had no choice but to help Rauf. It was her duty.

Salmond said: "Members of Parliament have to do their best for their constituents. They should do it without fear or favour, not because they condone their actions… but because they have a duty of care."

The Nationalist blogger Jeff Breslin at SNP Tactical Voting went even further: such a duty of care, he said, extended even to a "mass-murdering, child-molesting drug pusher".

Margaret Curran, a Labour MSP, said Salmond had "given the green light to stomach-churning madness". She and other senior Labour figures were last night looking into whether the First Minister had misled parliament by suggesting they had an "obligation" to act on behalf of offenders.

Richard Baker, Labour's justice spokesman, is a list MSP for North East Scotland. His multi-member area includes Peterhead prison, home to the nation's most serious sex offenders. He doesn't want to be under any obligation to them. Yesterday he said: "Serial killer Peter Tobin is one of my constituents. Do I owe him a duty of care? Would I have to help him if he asked? Because I don't want to and I wouldn't."