How the MH17 crisis helped reopen the case of a poisoned former KGB spy

Griff Witte
The Washington Post | July 22, 2014

Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB spy, photographed at his home in London in 2002, left, and in a hospital bed in London on Nov. 20, 2006. He died Nov. 23, 2006. (Alistair Fuller/AP; Reuters)

LONDON — The killing of former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko began with a poison-laced cup of tea and ended 25 days later with an excruciating death in a London hospital.

Nearly eight years have passed since then, and much about Litvinenko’s killing remains a mystery. Who exactly killed the spy-turned-whistleblower? More important: On whose orders, and why?

On Tuesday, there was new and unexpected hope that some of those mysteries will finally be solved.

The hope came in the form of a U-turn from the British government, which has long blocked a full public inquiry into Litvinenko’s death but on Tuesday said it would allow the investigation to go forward.

Litvinenko’s widow has alleged that British authorities didn’t want anyone digging into the case because they feared that it would upset Russian President Vladimir Putin. The British government acknowledged as much last year, saying that “international relations” had been a factor in decision-making around the case.

But Putin’s wrath is not such a concern anymore, now that British Prime Minister David Cameron is calling for Europe to hit Russia hard with new sanctions after last week’s downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine. Cameron and others in the West have blamed the crash on Russian-backed rebels.

British officials stressed Tuesday that the timing of the Litvinenko decision and the push to punish Moscow were entirely unrelated.

But few in London believed that.

Details about the killing of Litvinenko have long been seen here as deep, dark secrets with the potential to embarrass both London and Moscow. Litvinenko had fled to London in 2000 after becoming an outspoken critic of his former employer, the Russian domestic intelligence service. His widow has said that he was working for Britain’s foreign intelligence service, MI6, at the time of his death at age 43 from exposure to radioactive polonium.

The two Russians who sipped tea with Litvinenko at a posh London hotel before he fell ill have been named as prime suspects in his killing. But they deny involvement and remain in Russia.

Until now, the investigation has been prohibited from considering evidence that the Russian government played a role in the killing. But after Tuesday’s decision, that will change.

“It is more than 7 years since Mr. Litvinenko’s death, and I very much hope that this inquiry will be of some comfort to his widow Mrs. Litvinenko,” Home Secretary Theresa May said in a written statement to Parliament.

Marina Litvinenko, who has long campaigned for the facts of her husband’s killing to be brought to light, celebrated Tuesday’s about-face, saying she was “relieved and delighted.”

“No matter how strong and powerful you are,” she said in a written statement, “truth will win out in the end.”



Litvinenko Public Inquiry: Why Announce It Now?
As Russian relations deteriorate, sources admit announcing a public inquiry into the ex-KGB spy’s death now is "bad timing".
Anushka Asthana, Political Correspondent
Sky News | 22 July 2014

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told us yesterday that "diplomatic activity" was under way "at all levels" to try to persuade EU countries to ramp up sanctions against Russia.

The tragic case of flight MH17 has brought East-West relations to a new low: negotiations that take place in the next few days and weeks will inevitably be sensitive.

A strange moment, then, to shine a torch on a previous diplomatic entanglement.

That was the death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London – as a result of radiation poisoning.

It happened after he had met two other former agents for tea. When Britain demanded that a key suspect be extradited, Russia refused.

Now the Home Office has announced a public inquiry into the circumstances of the death, chaired by senior judge Sir Robert Owen.

The question that hovers over this decision is – why now?

Mr Litvinenko was killed almost eight years ago, and the Government has long resisted an inquiry.

Sources admit it is "bad timing" but insist there is no conspiracy. They point to a High Court ruling back in February, following a judicial review by Mr Litvinenko’s widow, Marina. It said there was a pressing need for an inquiry. So the Government had to act.

But it did so slowly.

Today was its final opportunity, according to the source, because it is the day that Parliament breaks up – and given the ruling it would be inappropriate to wait until after the summer.

Arguably, the Home Office is trying to keep the announcement low profile – with a written rather than spoken statement. But inevitably the policy has already become news.

Officials will be hoping that it might slip under Russia’s radar until the inquiry itself reports.

When that happens it is likely to cause another round of recriminations – especially as one of the two suspects is now an MP and Russia is likely to continue to resist any extradition.

Key Dates Leading Up To Litvinenko Inquiry

Updated: 12:08pm UK, Tuesday 22 July 2014

A public inquiry into the death of poisoned Russian ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko has been announced by the Government.

Here are the key events leading up to the announcement.

::  October 2000 – Alexander Litvinenko and his family flee Russia, despite an order telling him not to leave Moscow.

::  November 2000 – the former spy asks for asylum at Heathrow Airport.

::  May 14, 2001 – the UK grants him political asylum.

::  November 1, 2006 – Mr Litvinenko is taken ill after having tea with former agents Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun at a hotel in London.

::  November 23, 2006 – the ex-KGB officer dies of poisoning by radioactive polonium-210.

::  May 22, 2007 – Director of Public Prosecutions Ken Macdonald decides there is enough evidence to charge prime suspect Mr Lugovoi over Mr Litvinenko’s death – he subsequently denied involvement, accusing Mr Litvinenko of being a British spy.

::  July 2007 – Russia refuses to extradite Mr Lugovoi on the grounds that it is against the Russian constitution to extradite someone without firm evidence.

:: October 2011 – A London coroner announces

::  May/June 2013 – The inquest is put on hold as the coroner says a public inquiry would be better.

::  July 2013 – The British Government rules out public inquiry.

::  February 2014 – Mr Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, wins a seven-year fight to force a public inquiry when the High Court backs her case.

::  July 22, 2014 – Home Secretary Theresa May announces a public inquiry is to be held, saying she "hopes it will be of some comfort to his widow".


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