On Tuesday, nearly eight years after former KGB officer-turned-dissident Alexander V. Litvinenko was killed by radioactive poisoning, the British government announced it was opening a formal investigation into the matter. The decision is likely to further strain already tenuous relations between Russia and Great Britain, who are at odds regarding Russia’s annexation of Crimea, their support of Bashar Assad in Syria, and their possible complicity in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
The move represents an about-face for Home Secretary Theresa May, following the London High Court’s decision in February rejecting her refusal not to hold a public inquiry. May’s reluctance had stemmed from concerns about what effect it would have on British-Russian relations, which have long been strained by the murder. But despite denials by British Prime Minister David Cameron, it appears the murders of 298 passengers aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over an area controlled by pro-Russian separatists has provided the ultimate impetus for reconsideration.
“I am announcing today the government’s decision to establish an inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005 to investigate the death of Mr. Alexander Litvinenko in November 2006,” May announced on the uk.gov website. “The inquiry will be established by the Home Office. The inquiry will be chaired by Sir Robert Owen, a senior judge who is the current Coroner in the Inquest into Mr. Litvinenko’s death.”
During the long legal process leading to May’s announcement, Owen insisted the British government possessed documents that “establish a prima facie case as to the culpability of the Russian state in the death of Alexander Litvinenko.”
A history of bad blood between Litvinenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin goes back to 1998. At the time Putin, a former KGB officer, was appointed to head the FSB, which is what the KGB became after the fall of the Soviet Union. Litvinenko had also been a KGB officer working in counterintelligence before getting a 1997 promotion to senior operational officer in the FSB department investigating organized crime at the new agency. Litvinenko incurred Putin’s wrath when he and four other FSB agents conducted a news conference during which they accused the head of the organized crime directorate of ordering the assassination of Boris Berezovsky. Berezovsky was a powerful businessman and political operative allied to former Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
After Litvinenko warned Berezovsky about the plot, he was fired and subsequently arrested three times. After spending a month in jail he was released after promising not to leave Russia. But he acquired a forged passport and fled with his wife and son seeking asylum in Britain on Nov. 1, 2000.
Over the next six years, Litvinenko became an anti-Kremlin journalist, accusing the Russian government of abuses during their battles with Chechen separatists in the 1990s, and the FSB’s alleged 1999 bombing of 300 people in explosions at apartments in Russia that was used to justify its second war against Chechnya. He also claimed two of the Chechen separatists who took hostages at a theater in Moscow in October 2002 during which 162 people died were working for the FSB. He also pointed the finger at the FSB for having trained al Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. In addition, he accused Putin of pedophilia.
Yet what might have set the wheels in motion for Litvinenko’s murder was his investigation into the October 2006 murder of fellow Russian Anna Politkovskaya. Politkovskaya was also a journalist who had built an international reputation for her own exposés of the Russian government’s activities in Chechnya. After she was gunned down outside her home, Litvinenko began his investigation, and ultimately accused Putin of ordering Politkovskaya’s assassination.
On November 1, 2006, six years to the day after he arrived in London, Litvinenko met with former Russian army officer Dmitri Kovtun at the Millennium Hotel in central London, where he drank tea from a pot poisoned with polonium-210. Afterwards it was discovered that the pot, the teacup, the hotel bar and several members of the bar’s staff had been contaminated with polonium 210.
From that day until his death on Nov. 23, Litvinenko, 43, slowly wasted away, from the long distance runner he was into a bald and frail husk, one excruciating day after another. On his deathbed, Litvinenko, who had predicted Russia would assassinate him, blamed Putin for his poisoning. Putin has dismissed the allegation.
At the time, investigators believed that the plot to kill Litvinenko had been orchestrated by Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi, a former KGB agent. Lugovoi, who is now a member of the Russian Parliament, denied any involvement in the plot, as did Kovtun. A document filed with the Crown Prosecution Service by police in 2007 characterized the killing as “state sponsored.” And despite Russia dismissing the accusations against Kovtun and Lugovoi as irrelevant, it began its own investigation, which ultimately had the effect of hampering the British one, despite British police and prosecutors contending there was enough evidence to charge to both men.
On Tuesday, everything changed. Previous contentions by the British government that it was necessary to withhold evidence it characterized as classified and potentially detrimental to the national interest have apparently been resolved. The inquiry will proceed beginning July 31 and should conclude by the end of 2015, according to British Prime Minister David Cameron. Some of the proceedings may be held in private when classified material is being considered. And while Cameron claims that the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 played no part in the decision, there is little doubt that Russia will see it that way.
May noted the inquiry will not include questions regarding whether Britain could have, or should have, taken measures to prevent Litvinenko’s death. “It is more than seven years since Mr. Litvinenko’s death, and I very much hope that this inquiry will be of some comfort to his widow,” she said in a written statement to Parliament.
It should be noted that Boris Berezovsky, who engendered the initial acrimony between Putin and Litvinenko, and was himself a critic of Putin and Russia following his own exile to London, was discovered dead in a luxury home outside the city last year. The coroner could not determine wether his death was a suicide or a murder. “I can either return a verdict that Boris Berezovsky has committed suicide, or that he was killed, said coroner Peter Bedford. “Any of these versions should definitely be supported with evidence. I do not have sufficient evidence to confirm any of these versions. So I’ll leave the verdict open.”
Litvinenko’s widow, Marina Litvinenko, was elated by the decision to investigate her husband’s murder. “I am relieved and delighted with this decision,” she said in a statement. Referring to her husband by his nickname, she continued. “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.”
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