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Mon Jul 25 12:05:33 SAST 2016

Putin ‘probably approved’ Litvinenko poisoning, British inquiry says

ALAN COWELL | 21 January, 2016 17:49
The British government announced a public inquiry into the death of Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian dissident who was poisoned in London with radioactive tea in 2006. The move comes as Britain presses for further sanctions against Russia over the downing of a passenger plane over eastern Ukraine, allegedly by pro-Moscow separatists.
Image by: AFP Photo

A high-profile British inquiry into the poisoning of Alexander V. Litvinenko, a former KGB officer turned critic of the Kremlin, concluded in a report released Thursday that his murder “was probably approved” by President Vladimir Putin of Russia and the head of the country’s spy service.

The finding by Robert Owen, a retired High Court judge, in a 328-page report, represented by far the most damning official link between Litvinenko’s death on November 23, 2006, and the highest levels of the Kremlin.

The report could revive strains in relations between Britain and Russia, which were plunged into a chill reminiscent of the Cold War by the death of Litvinenko, a whistleblower who had fought corruption in Moscow’s security services.

Speaking after the release of the report, Litvinenko’s wife, Marina, said she was “very pleased that the words my husband spoke on his deathbed, when he accused Putin, have been proved by an English court.”

Litvinenko died 22 days after ingesting green tea laced with polonium 210 — a rare and highly toxic isotope — in the company of two Russian associates, Andrei K. Lugovoi and Dmitri V. Kovtun. He was 43. The three men had met in the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel in London.

Lugovoi, now a member of parliament in Russia, said the accusation that he murdered Litvinenko was “absurd,” the Russian news agency Interfax reported, and a Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry S. Peskov, said the Litvinenko case “is not among the topics that interest us.”

The inquiry was called after years of dogged efforts by Litvinenko to press for a full accounting of her husband’s death. The British police have accused Lugovoi and Kovtun of murder, charges they deny.

The killing also raised questions in London about the potential involvement of Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Russia’s FSB security service, the domestic successor to the KGB, at the time of Litvinenko’s death, and Putin.

“Taking full account of all the evidence and analysis available to me,” Owen said in the report, “I find that the FSB operation to kill Mr. Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr. Patrushev and also by President Putin.”

Although the wording seemed to suggest a degree of caution, the report left no doubt that Litvinenko’s death had, in the judge’s view, been an act of murder planned by a Russian state agency.

“I am sure that Mr. Lugovoi and Mr. Kovtun placed the polonium 210 in the teapot at the Pine Bar” on Nov. 1, 2006, Owen’s report said. “I am sure that Mr. Lugovoi and Mr. Kovtun knew that they were using a deadly poison.”

He added: “I am sure that Mr. Lugovoi and Mr. Kovtun were acting on behalf of others when they poisoned Mr. Litvinenko.”

Owen suggested, however, that the two men were not aware “precisely what the chemical that they were handling was, or the nature of all its properties.”

As motives for Litvinenko’s poisoning, Owen listed various possible factors, including a belief that he had betrayed the FSB during his time working for the organization as an investigator in Moscow and had begun to work for British intelligence after he fled in 2000.

He was also a close associate of prominent opponents of the Kremlin based in London, including Boris Berezovsky, a former oligarch and enemy of Putin’s who died in 2013, the report said.

“Finally, there was undoubtedly a personal dimension to the antagonism between Mr. Litvinenko on one hand and President Putin on the other,” the report said.

It excluded any role in the poisoning by the British security services, organized crime gangs, Berezovsky or other associates of Litvinenko.

In a deathbed statement, Litvinenko had denounced Putin and accused him of murder — a charge the Russian leader denied.

“You may succeed in silencing one man, but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life,” Litvinenko’s statement said.

Litvinenko, his wife and their son, Anatoly, had lived in Britain since fleeing Russia in 2000 and had secured British citizenship weeks before he died. Marina Litvinenko has told the inquiry that her husband worked as an agent of the British MI6 spy service.

Testimony at the inquiry suggested that Alexander Litvinenko was seeking to trace links between Putin, his entourage and organized crime groups. He was planning to travel to Spain to meet with investigators there when he was poisoned.

Despite the chill in relations between London and Moscow that his death caused, ties gradually improved as Prime Minister David Cameron, like other Western leaders, sought Putin’s support on key issues such as the civil war in Syria and the Iranian nuclear program.

In recent days, news reports have indicated that British diplomats were eager to maintain those ties with the Kremlin, whatever the outcome of Owen’s inquiry, which began almost one year ago on Jan. 27, 2015.

Owen heard public testimony from 62 witnesses in 34 days of hearings. Closed-door hearings were held to interview other witnesses, however, and their testimony will not be included in the final report. The official secrecy reflected a determined effort by British government ministers, citing the needs of national security, to limit the scope of the inquiry’s disclosures.

Testimony included previously unpublished transcripts of police interviews with Litvinenko as he lay in a hospital bed in central London. Based on what he told them, British detectives pieced together an itinerary of his movements and those of his Russian contacts before his death.

Once the presence of the deadly isotope was discovered, investigators followed what became known as the polonium trail, connecting locations visited by Lugovoi and Kovtun in October and November 2006.

The most striking readings came from the Millennium Hotel, close to the U.S. Embassy, where investigators retrieved a “mangled clump of debris” with high concentrations of polonium from the waste pipe under the wash basin of a bedroom used by Kovtun.

“The reason that evidence is so pivotal, of course, is because Dmitri Kovtun stayed in that room on the very day that he and Mr. Lugovoi administered the fatal dose of polonium some floors below in the Pine Bar of the same hotel,” Ben Emmerson, a lawyer representing Marina Litvinenko, said on the final day of hearings on July 31, 2015, before Owen began composing the report.

At the same hearings, Richard Horwell, a lawyer representing Scotland Yard, told the inquiry that “it is the scientific evidence that condemns Lugovoi and Kovtun,” who “have no credible answer to the scientific evidence and to the trail of polonium they left behind.”

Both men have insisted that Alexander Litvinenko was the source of the polonium and, in fact, had tried to poison them. - 2016 New York Times News Service

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