Britain announces inquiry into killing of ex-KGB officer

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LONDON — Almost eight years after Alexander V. Litvinenko, a former KGB officer turned whistle-blower, was poisoned in London with a radioactive isotope, British authorities announced Tuesday that a public inquiry would be held into his death, permitting investigators to explore whether Russian leaders ordered the killing.

At a time when President Vladimir Putin faces mounting Western opprobrium for his support of pro-Russia separatists accused of shooting down a Malaysia Airlines jetliner over eastern Ukraine, the announcement from British Home Secretary Theresa May could be seen by Moscow as a further rebuke. “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,” Ms. May said in a written statement to Parliament.

The announcement reflected a remarkable about-face by the Prime Minister David Cameron‘‍s government, which, seeking improved relations with Moscow, long resisted demands by Mr. Litvinenko’s supporters for scrutiny of any role in his death by the Russian state or British intelligence services. With Mr. Cameron calling for sanctions against Russia over the crisis in Ukraine, the ground now seems to have shifted, although British officials described the timing of Tuesday’s announcement as a coincidence.

“I am relieved and delighted with this decision,” Marina Litvinenko, the former KGB officer’s widow, said in a statement. Using her husband’s nickname, she added, “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.”

Mr. Litvinenko became a bitter foe of Mr. Putin in 1998, when the Russian leader, a former KGB officer, refused to investigate Mr. Litvinenko’s allegations of corruption and malfeasance in the ranks of the FSB, the domestic successor to the KGB. At the time, Mr. Putin was the newly appointed head of the FSB.

Mr. Litvinenko, 43, who fled to Britain with his family in 2000, died an excruciating death in November 2006, after drinking tea from a pot laced with polonium 210, at a central London hotel. British authorities are seeking extradition of Andrei K. Lugovoi, another former KGB officer, to face murder charges.

Russia has refused to hand over Mr. Lugovoi, saying its constitution does not permit extradition of its citizens. Mr. Lugovoi, who is now a member of the Russian parliament, has denied the charges. In a deathbed statement, Mr. Litvinenko said he blamed Mr. Putin, but Mr. Putin has dismissed the accusation.

Plans to hold an inquest led by a senior judge, Sir Robert Owen, were dropped after the British Foreign Office invoked national security interests to prevent the inquest from even considering whether Moscow had played a part in the killing, or whether British intelligence could have prevented it.

The judge last year said the restrictions made it impossible to hold a “fair and fearless” inquest, and he urged the establishment of a public inquiry that would be empowered to hold closed-door sessions about possible involvement by the Kremlin or MI6, the British overseas intelligence agency.

Ms. Litvinenko has said her husband was a paid agent of MI6 at the time he was killed. He and his family had been granted British citizenship weeks before his death.

The British government initially refused to hold a public inquiry, but, in February, three judges ordered Ms. May to reconsider. In her announcement Tuesday, Ms. May said it would be up to Judge Owen to make arrangements for the inquiry. Judge Owen will also preside over the inquiry, which will be empowered to determine responsibility for the death and make appropriate recommendations.

Earlier in the long legal process that led to Tuesday’s announcement, court filings indicated that Judge Owen believed that 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.”

The announcement included no overt restriction on assessing any involvement by Moscow. But it maintained some limitations on the scope of the proposed public inquiry, saying it “will not address the question of whether the U.K. authorities could or should have taken steps which would have prevented the death.”

Mr. Litvinenko’s supporters have argued that, as a paid agent of MI6, he should have been protected from adversaries in the Kremlin. But the announcement said there had been no evidence to suggest that Mr. Litvinenko’s life was in danger.

Mr. Litvinenko was a close associate of a former oligarch, Boris A. Berezovsky, a Kremlin critic who was found dead last year in a locked bathroom at a luxury home outside London belonging to a former wife. A British coroner said in March that he could not establish whether Mr. Berezovsky’s death was a suicide or homicide, and returned an open verdict.

england - london - Russia - Eastern Europe - Europe - Western Europe - United Kingdom - David Cameron - United Kingdom government - Vladimir Putin - Russia government - Alexander Litvinenko - Theresa May


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