Alexander Litvinenko inquiry: Evidence Russia was involved in his death
Judge leaves open possibility that inquiry will explore whether the British state could have done more to prevent the poisoining of the former KGB spy
Telegraph | 31 Jul 2014
A public inquiry into the death of the death of Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB spy, will look at "prima facie" evidence that the Russian state was involved and could examine whether the British government failed to protect him.
"Sensitive" government evidence over the poisoning of Mr Litvinenko in London in 2006 would be heard in closed sessions, Sir Robert Owen, the presiding judge, told the first day of the inquiry.
The possible involvement of the Russian government in Mr Litvinenko’s death would be of "central importance to my investigation," Sir Robert said.
He said he had seen "prima facie" evidence of the Russian state’s involvement. And, while he had seen no evidence that the British state failed to protect Mr Litvinenko, the scope of the inquiry could be widened if new evidence came to light.
Sir Robert, acting as coroner, formally suspended an inquest into Mr Litvinenko’s death and opened the public inquiry, which he will chair, at the Royal Courts of Justice. It followed a change of heart earlier this month by the British government, who had previously refused to set up a public inquiry which can, unlike an inquest, hear evidence in secret.
He added: "Because of the sensitivity of Her Majesty’s Government’s evidence it is inevitable that at least some of my final report will also have to remain secret.
"But I make it clear now that I intend to make public my final conclusions on the issue of Russian state responsibility together with, as much as possible, my reasoning in that regard."
Mr Litvinenko,43, died after drinking tea laced with the radioactive poison polonium-210 with two Russians, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun, at a hotel in Grosvenor Square, London, in November 2006.
Efforts to extradite the two Russians failed, prompting the coroner to open the inquest in 2011.
Speaking afterwards, Mr Litvinenko’s widow Marina said she accepted that some evidence would have to be heard in secret, and that she would never get to hear it.
She said: "It will not be possible to see all of the materials because they are very sensitive."
But she said she was pleased that "finally we will know about this crime" after years of delays.
Ms Litvinenko said: "It’s been so many years. It’s very important forall of us, for everybody around the world to know the truth.
"The question of who killed my husband has still not been answered."
The judge had earlier thanked Ms Litvinenko for "the patience she has demonstrated during the highly regrettable delays that have occurred".
Parts of Alexander Litvinenko inquiry to be heard in secret, coroner confirms
Sir Robert Owen also says sections of his final conclusion will be withheld due to sensitivity of documents he will consider
Owen Bowcott, legal affairs correspondent
Guardian | 31 July 2014
Parts of the public inquiry into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB spy, will be held in secret, the judge conducting it has confirmed.
Sir Robert Owen also revealed that sections of his final conclusion may have to be withheld because of the sensitivity of the British security documents he is due to consider.
Litvinenko died aged 43 after drinking tea laced with radioactive polonium-210 at a meeting with two Russian men at the Millennium hotel in Grosvenor Square, London, in November 2006.
The former KGB agents Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun have been identified as the prime suspects. Both deny any involvement and remain in Russia, where Lugovoi is a deputy in the state Duma.
The long-anticipated public inquiry into Litvinenko’s death is scheduled to start in full in January next year after further preparatory sessions in September.
The schedule emerged as the inquest into Litvinenko’s murder, repeatedly delayed by legal argument, was formally suspended and the public inquiry officially opened on Thursday.
Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, was among those sitting in court 76 of the Royal Courts of Justice when Owen left the room as the outgoing coroner and returned as the chairman of the inquiry. In a prepared statement, he explained why an inquiry would have powers to consider government documents that could not have been considered by an inquest.
"Had these proceedings remained as an inquest, those documents would have had to be excluded from my inquiries," he said. "It was for precisely that reason, that is, to enable me to consider this material in closed hearings, that I asked the government to establish this inquiry.
"The most important issue to which this sensitive material relates is that of Russian state responsibility for Mr Litvinenko’s death. As I have previously stated, I regard this issue as being of central importance to my investigation … The sensitive HMG material taken in isolation establishes a prima facie case that the Russian state was responsible for Mr Litvinenko’s death, a view that I have subsequently endorsed."
Owen added: "Because of the sensitivity of … government’s evidence it is inevitable that at least some of my final report will also have to remain secret. But I make it clear now that I intend to make public my final conclusions on the issue of Russian state responsibility together with as much as possible of my reasoning in that regard."
Outside the courts, Marina Litvinenko said: "Finally we will know about this crime. It’s been so many years. It’s very important for all of us, for everybody around the world to know the truth. The question of who killed my husband has still not been answered."
Litvinenko accepted that she would not be able to see the sensitive intelligence documents but said it was important that lawyers for the inquiry should be able to examine them so they could inform the inquiry’s final judgment.
"I know that it’s material I will not be able to see."
The terms of reference for the investigation are "to conduct an investigation into the death of Alexander Litvinenko in order to ascertain who the deceased was; how, when and where he came by his death; identify where responsibility for the death lies and make appropriate recommendations".
Under the Inquiries Act, Owen will have the power to demand the production of witnesses and papers within UK jurisdiction, including agents and documents from the security and intelligence services. However, he has no such powers in relation to evidence from Russia.
The inquiry will not focus on the role UK authorities might have had in preventing his death but, if fresh evidence about that emerges during the inquiry, it may be brought into the scope of the process.
Brits Investigate Assassination of the Spy Who Warned Us About Putin
The Daily Beast | 07.22.14
Eight years ago, the Kremlin likely murdered a former KGB officer living in London with radioactive poison. The U.K. was too cozy with Russia to go after his killers—until now
LONDON — Vladimir Putin thought he’d got away with murder. At least that was the conclusion of diplomats and security officials for eight years as Britain ignored demands for an inquiry into the assassination of a former KGB officer in Central London.
Alexander Litvinenko had angered the Kremlin with repeated claims that Putin was running a thuggish and brutal regime. He sought refuge in Britain and was granted asylum, but local police were powerless to prevent his assassination. He was struck down inside an upmarket London hotel by a rare radioactive poison that had been slipped in to his pot of tea.
Many suspected Moscow’s hand, and the victim’s family described his killing as “state-sponsored nuclear terrorism.” Scotland Yard investigators found a trail of radioactivity from the deadly polonium-210 isotope that led all the way back to the Moscow. The British government, however, steadfastly refused to sanction an inquiry into Russia’s involvement. That changed Tuesday when Theresa May, Britain’s Home Secretary, announced a full inquiry into Litvenenko’s murder just as global leaders were lining up to say that Putin has blood on his hands after the death of almost 300 people aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
For at least one death, Russia’s president will escape scrutiny no more. A public inquiry will be opened next week to examine whether the Russian state was behind the death of Litvinenko, a man who had previously accused the Kremlin of killing its own citizens and said he was investigating the death of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya.
Eight years prior to today’s announcement, London’s relationship with Moscow was very different. The government had encouraged Russian money to pour into the country with an overhaul of tax and immigration rules that transformed the city into a haven for Russia’s super-rich generation of oligarchs. Wealthy Russians, both pro- and anti-Putin, moved their families and their bank accounts to Britain in order to protect them from Moscow’s erratic and lawless climate.
When Putin was accused of extending his system of recriminations to reach into the heart of London, the British government appeared reluctant to challenge him openly. Relations were already strained by the sheer quantity of wealth that had been transferred out of Russia, and the number of dissidents who had been granted asylum in Britain.The British government admitted for the first time earlier this year that the murder investigation had been curbed for political reasons. “It is true that international relations have been a factor in the Government’s decision-making,” May conceded.If Putin took this as evidence that no one would dare to call him out for murder, who could blame him?When Russia’s football team traveled to London for a crucial game against England in September 2007, one of the Russian fans marched around Wembley Stadium cloaked in a Russian flag, wearing a T-shirt that bore the legend: “Polonium-210.”
He was celebrating the most brazen murder of a Russian dissident since the end of the Cold War; a murder that had taken place less than a mile from Buckingham Palace with seemingly no repercussions from the British authorities. No wonder Russian nationalists thought it was worthy of celebration.Even the details of an official call for a full inquiry had been hushed up by the British government. During a High Court appeal in January this year, it emerged that Sir Robert Owen, who was appointed as Litvinenko’s coroner, had been making a powerful case behind closed doors. He had concluded that documents held by the British government “establish a prima facie case as to the culpability of the Russian state in the death of Alexander Litvinenko”. He told senior officials that an inquest was not powerful enough to handle the kind of allegations he needed to explore.
Today he was appointed chairman of an inquiry that will begin on July 31. The inquiry, most of which will be heard in public, should be completed by the end of next year. Owen will have the power to compel the production of witnesses and documents from the British security and intelligence services.
Obviously, he will have no such power to demand the appearance of Russian officials and intelligence officers. Back in 2007, Britain’s office of public prosecutions recommended that former KGB agents Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun be charged with murder. Moscow said the men, who deny responsibility, would not be extradited to London for trial under any circumstances.
Scotland Yard felt they had more than enough evidence for a prosecution. Polonium-210 may have seemed like the perfect murder weapon due to its colorless and odorless properties and its gradual but devastating impact on the health of a human being. Even airport scanners, which are set up to detect radioactive gamma rays, miss the alpha rays given off by this radioactive isotope. Because it was such an unusual poison, the killers may have felt it was unlikely that medical staff would know to test for it.
The slow, painful death of Litvinenko, 43, who had been working for MI6, was curious enough, however, for authorities to keep probing until they successfully identified the radioactivity that was killing the former KGB agent from the inside.Once the polonium had been recognized, police were able to trace the source of the poison to the Millennium hotel in Mayfair. Lugovoi and Kovtun had met Litvinenko there for tea on November 1, ten days before he was admitted to Barnet General Hospital in North London.From the tea rooms of the Millennium hotel, Scotland Yard followed the trail; tracing back over Lugovoi’s apparent itinerary from Heathrow airport, to the Abracadabra lap-dancing club and the Emirates soccer stadium, where he had watched Arsenal play CSKA Moscow in a Champions League game.Traces of the isotope were also found on return flights from Russia, inside the British embassy in Moscow and in a flat in Hamburg linked to Kovtun.Many years after this evidence was collected Sir Richard Ottaway, the chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, admitted the timing of today’s announcement was “a bit quirky” given the current pressure on Putin. Downing Street denied that there was any connection.In truth, it was Marina Litvinenko who made it happen. Faced with a recalcitrant government she sought assistance in the courts, and it was her victorious appeal at the High Court earlier this year that forced the government into a u-turn on behalf of her slain husband, a man she called Sasha. “I am relieved and delighted with this decision. It sends a message to Sasha’s murderers: no matter how strong and powerful you are, truth will win out in the end and you will be held accountable for your crimes.”If Western governments are too weak to hold Putin to account, the only hope lies in the families of his many victims.