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British Court to Investigate Former Russian Agent's Poisoning

September 20, 2012

by Selah Hennessy

A senior judge says an inquest will take place early next year into the death of a former Russian FSB security services officer who was poisoned in Britain in 2006. The family of Alexander Litvinenko wants the hearing to investigate what it believes was the "criminal role" of the Russian state.

At a preliminary hearing on Thursday, High Court judge Robert Owen said the six-year delay between Litvinenko's death and the holding of an inquest was "regrettable." He said the hearing will take place in early 2013.

Human rights lawyer Louise Christian is the legal representative for Alexander Litvinenko’s widow, Marina Litvinenko. Christian says she has waited a long time for answers about her husband’s death.

“It is of course very difficult for her. She has gone all this time without a full inquiry but we are now very optimistic that the inquest will be heard quickly and that it will get to the bottom of things,” Christian said.

Alexander Litvinenko was a former Russian agent who later became a critic of the Kremlin. He came to Britain in 2000 and claimed asylum. After he died in 2006, a post-mortem examination linked his death to poisoning by the radioactive substance polonium-210.

British police identified Andrei Lugovoi, also a former Russian security services agent, as the main suspect in their investigation. They accused him of putting polonium in Litvinenko's tea during a meeting at a London hotel. Police have also accused a second former Russian agent, Dmitry Kovtun, who was also at the meeting. Both deny the allegations and Russia has refused to extradite them.

The coroner said Thursday that the inquest will investigate all links to Litvinenko’s death and will also hear allegations that he was murdered by the Russian state.

It also emerged Thursday that sections of a police report related to whether Litvinenko had contact with Britain's foreign intelligence service will be kept secret. At the government's request, those sections will be available to lawyers and to the coroner but will not be made public.

Solicitor Christian says all avenues must be investigated, including a possible link to the Kremlin.

“The two people who have been named by the very thorough investigations by the police and the crown prosecution service, who of course are independent, as having been responsible - that's Mr. Lugovoi and Mr. Kovtun - were both ex-agents of the FSB, which is the Russian Security Services. It seems unlikely that they would have brought this substance into this country on their own, of their own initiative," he said. "And I think there are lots of questions to be asked about where the polonium came from, who was producing it, and what their motivation might have been.”

The Russian government has denied any involvement in Litvinenko’s death. It says Britain has a bias against Russia.

Jonathan Eyal, director of International Studies at London’s Royal United Services Institute, says the relationship between the governments in Britain and Russia has been icy since Litvinenko’s death. Recently, he says, the relationship has thawed, but this inquiry may reverse the progress.

“In many respects a reiteration of some of these facts, or even the revelation of new facts, are unlikely to change very substantially the situation that we are in now. They may however bring a new chill to a relationship that has never been very healthy,” Eyal said.

In Britain, inquests examine sudden or unexplained deaths. They aim to establish the details of the death, including the place and time and how the deceased met his or her death. They are not trials and do not apportion criminal or civil liability.

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