HUMZA Yousaf has said he can understand why people are concerned after a South Lanarkshire man avoided prison for raping a 13-year-old girl. 

The First Minister said he had to be careful not to comment on the exact details of the case as an appeal is likely.

Sean Hogg, now 21, attacked the girl in Dalkeith Country Park, Midlothian, on various occasions in 2018.

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Sentencing him this week, Judge Lord Lake told the man he was escaping jail because of his age.

New guidelines were introduced in January last year, which make rehabilitation rather than punishment a primary consideration when sentencing under 25s. 

At the time, the Scottish Sentencing Council said the new rules were based on "compelling scientific evidence on the development of cognitive maturity."

They said someone under the age of 25 would "generally have a lower level of maturity, and a greater capacity for change and rehabilitation, than an older person."

Although they say a young person’s age should be taken into consideration when sentencing, they do not rule out imprisonment.

The leniency of the sentence has been criticised by Rape Crisis Scotland, opposition politicians and high-profile campaigners, including Rowling. 

The Harry Potter author tweeted: “Progressive Scotland 2023, where a man gets no jail time for raping a 13-year-old girl in a park. Young Scottish men are effectively being told ‘first time’s free.’”

The Scottish Conservatives have called for the guidelines to be reviewed.

Jamie Greene, the party’s justice spokesman, has written to new Justice Secretary, Angela Constance, urging her to act.

He said: “It is outrageous and appalling that such a despicable crime has not even been punished with a prison sentence and the public will rightly be wondering why this has happened in this case.

“The soft-touch approach to justice taken by the Scottish Government is at least partially to blame in this instance.”

He added: “I implore you to order a review of these sentencing guidelines as is the Scottish Ministers’ right under Section 7 of the 2010 Act with a view to scrapping the guidelines so that rapists and other serious criminals do not avoid prison in future just because they are under 25.

“As a new Justice Secretary, you have the ability to change the direction of Scottish Government policy to get tough on serious criminals who commit such horrific crimes and I hope you will consider my request today.”

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Asked about the sentence during a visit to Aberdeen, Mr Yousaf said he had to be careful not to intervene in sentencing decisions, as they were for the independent judiciary. 

"But I have heard remarks from Rape Crisis Scotland, from many others too saying that they are astonished at the sentence and let me be clear, I can understand the strength of feeling." 

He added: "It's really important that I don't say any more because my understanding is that the Crown is considering a potential appeal to that sentence from the press reports that I've seen.

"So I can understand where people's concern is, but it's really important, also, that I am not seen to interfere in the independence of the judiciary."

Asked about possibly revising the guidelines, the First Minister said this was a matter for the Sentencing Council.

"As tempting as it can be, and often is, it's really important that government ministers and me as the First Minister, of course, don't intervene or are seen to be intervening in sentencing decisions."

Mr Yousaf defended the need for rehabilitation, saying the country should do "everything we possibly can to ensure people just don't end up in the revolving door, going from prison to court, back in the community and back into prison."

The ex-justice minister said: "I am committed to rehabilitation, but this particular sentence, this particular occasion, I can understand why people have concern about the sentence that has been given in this instance. 

At his sentencing, Lord Lake said if Hogg, who lives in Hamilton, had been just four years older he would have been jailed for four or five years. 

"You are a first offender with no previous history of prison; you are 21 and were 17 at the time. Prison does not lead me to believe this will contribute to your rehabilitation,” he said.

Sandy Brindley, the Chief Executive of Rape Crisis Scotland, said she was “concerned about the message this case sends about how seriously the Scottish justice system takes the crime of rape.”

“This is an extremely serious case and we are shocked this perpetrator has not received a custodial sentence. Given the gravity of this crime and the fact it was tried at the High Court, this sentence appears to us to be worryingly lenient. 

“Our thoughts are with the survivor of this crime.”

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Speaking to the BBC on Tuesday morning, Tommy Ross KC said it was the first time he’d heard of anyone found guilty of rape avoiding prison. 

The veteran lawyer said: "The guideline says that in the case of a young person then rehabilitation is a primary consideration. And I would imagine that was at the forefront of the judge's mind.

"I should say that many young people are sentenced. And most young people who are sentenced for rape go to prison. So this is quite an unusual sentence.”

“I've been working in the High Court now for around for 20 odd years, I've never seen anybody avoid prison for rape until yesterday," he added.

A spokesperson for the Crown Office said: "As with all cases, the Crown will consider the sentence and give consideration to whether it might be unduly lenient."