By Russell Findlay

Scotland's police watchdog is investigating a group of male officers accused of criminality and sexist bullying of female colleagues.

The Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (PIRC) probe centres on the Moray town of Forres and has been questioning witnesses over ten months.

It is alleged that male officers - nicknamed "the boys' club" - drove a female officer to a forest at night where they abandoned her.

This was to "teach her a lesson" after she made a report of domestic violence and sexual assault against her police officer ex-partner.

A second female constable, in the late stages of pregnancy, was allegedly locked in a first-floor room inside Forres police station, forcing her to flee through the fire escape.

A female civilian officer was also allegedly locked in a ground-floor room at the same police station. She escaped by climbing out a window.

Another female constable made a criminal complaint, that she was placed in a state of fear and alarm by some of the so-called boys' club.

An STV News investigation today reveals PIRC is probing a "handful" of officers. We are not naming any of those involved at this stage.

The PIRC inquiry was triggered by a female constable who turned whistleblower because she believed her initial allegations were not being properly investigated by Police Scotland.

Former assistant chief constable Angela Wilson, who campaigned for sexual equality during her police career, said: "If these allegations are proven to be correct, and I really do hope there is a thorough investigation of this, then it's absolutely disgusting and totally and completely unacceptable, especially in this day and age."

A friend of one of the female complainers told STV News: "This all began in 2017 when the female constable in Forres made allegations of sexual assault and domestic violence against her then partner, who is also a constable."

Having put faith in the internal investigation, she "became disillusioned when she suspected standard operating procedures were not being followed".

The friend said: "When word spread that she had made these allegations, she says her life became hell and the bullying began. The boys' club are friendly with the partner of the female officer.

"One night they told her that she needed to leave Forres police station as her ex was due to arrive. They preyed on her fear and she was taken in a van to Roseisle forest a few miles out of town.

"Once there they tricked her to get out for a cigarette and then drove off. It was incredibly distressing and they returned around half-an-hour later after they'd taught her a lesson."

The female officer eventually contacted the Crown Office's Criminal Allegation Against the Police Division (CAAPD) to ask what was happening with her case - but was told they were not aware of it.

Any allegations of criminality against police officers must be reported to CAAPD so she then contacted PIRC.

The friend said: "When the PIRC team arrived on the scene in February, other officers came forward to allege they had also been bullied. A can of worms was opened.

"Many of the complainers are female but there are also male officers who have made allegations of homophobia and bullying.

"There are particular concerns about why this was apparently allowed to flourish unchecked under the noses of senior officers. It's like they were untouchable."

Moray is the eighth largest local authority area in Scotland but has a population of around 96,000.

Neither PIRC - headed by lawyer Michelle Macleod - nor Police Scotland agreed to be interviewed by STV News or to answer any specific questions.

A PIRC spokesperson said: "We are investigating allegations of potential criminality against officers of Police Scotland and it would be inappropriate to comment further on a live inquiry.

"The matter was referred to PIRC by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) and a report on the commissioner's findings will be submitted to COPFS in due course."

A Police Scotland spokesperson said: "As the matter is being investigated by PIRC we are unable to comment."

Police Scotland is investigating allegations of criminality against a number of other officers based in Moray - separate to the ten-month PIRC inquiry.

They include a claim that a male constable had sex in a police car with a female victim of domestic abuse and that another assaulted a handcuffed prisoner in hospital.

A probationer PC was "required to resign" after allegedly carrying a knife while on duty and driving with blue lights despite not being trained to do so.

STV New asked Police Scotland for a response and how many officers in Moray are subject to active investigation - but they declined to answer.