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Putin Accused of Ordering Former Russian Secret Agent to be Poisoned in London

Eight years after two Russian agents allegedly assassinated Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive poison, the UK has begun an inquiry of the case.

by Sally Hayden
Jan 28 2015, 12:20am

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Eight years after a former Russian secret agent died a painful and prolonged death caused by ingesting the radioactive isotope polonium-210, an inquiry into his suspected murder has begun.

The atmosphere in Court 73 of the Royal Courts of Justice was restrained as journalists and members of the public leaned forward to take in the facts surrounding the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, a British citizen who wrote a deathbed message to the man he believed was behind his murder: Vladimir Putin.

While outlining some of the evidence expected to be put forward over the coming weeks, Robin Tam, the inquiry's legal counsel, pointed out the rare and shocking nature of the case.

"It is unusual for a victim of murder, as Mr. Litvinenko believed he might shortly be, to make a public statement about his own death," Tam said.

Authorities believe Litvinenko died as a result of ingesting polonium placed in green tea that he drank in Pine Bar at the Millennium Hotel in London's Grosvenor Square. It was only in the hours before he died that his cause of death was discovered — following an analysis of his urine by British nuclear weapons experts. In fact, Tam said on the first day of the inquiry that an analysis of Litvinenko's hair samples revealed that he was likely poisoned twice.

Litvinenko was an expert on organized crime, and was reportedly on the payroll of both MI6 and the Spanish secret service when he died.

Ben Emmerson, the lawyer for Litvinenko's widow, Marina, noted that "the intransigence of the British government" was one major obstacle to holding the public investigation — the British Home Secretary rejected holding an inquiry in 2013, but decided to go ahead with one again in July following a legal challenge from Marina Litvinenko, who — the inquiry heard on Tuesday — put her house at risk while raising the fees.

Emmerson praised his client's steadfastness while condemning the alleged Russian involvement in her husband's assassination. "Mr. Putin should be unmasked by this inquiry as nothing more than a common criminal dressed up as a head of state," he said.

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During his speech, Emmerson labeled Litvinenko as a "whistleblower," saying he was subject to the "most painful and lingering death imaginable," and also "an act of nuclear terrorism on the streets of a major city."

The world is familiar with the haunting images of Litvinenko's final days, Emmerson said, when the former KGB agent's hair fell out due to radiation poisoning, and he lay in a green hospital gown with "his life slipping away."

Emmerson said Litvinenko spent 23 days in agonizing pain "as his strength began to fail him." During this time, Emmerson said, "he came to the awful realization that he was bound to die and that he had been the victim of a political assassination by the agents of the Russian state."

Emmerson's voice became more emotional as he pointed out that Litvinenko "had to be buried in a lead-lined coffin."

"He had to be eliminated, not because he was an enemy of the Russian state itself, and certainly not because he was an enemy of the Russian people, but because he had become an enemy of the close-knit group of criminals who surrounded and still surround Vladimir Putin," Emmerson said.

Litvinenko died on November 23, 2006. The following day, his friend Alex Goldfarb read a statement outside University College Hospital in London that Litvinenko composed on his deathbed. The statement said Litvinenko was proud to be a British citizen, and that his love for his wife and son had no bounds.

'He had become an enemy of the close-knit group of criminals who surrounded and still surround Vladimir Putin.'

While he felt the "beating of the winds of the angel of death," he added a message for the person he felt had ordered his "barbaric" murder.

"You may succeed in silencing me," Litvinenko's statement said, "but that silence comes at a price… Howls of protest around the world will reverberate in your ears, Mr Putin, for the rest of your life."

In a subsequent interview, Putin said the death was a tragedy, but he had seen no definitive proof that it was a "violent death."

The first day of the inquiry featured a colored graphic that showed forensic evidence of the "polonium trail" that Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi, the two men accused of murdering Litvinenko, left around London. On the visuals, green signified relatively light contamination and purple meant the maximum measurement had been reached.

At Pine Bar in the Millennium Hotel, the place Litvinenko was likely poisoned, the colors moved from green across the bar to purple at the table and chair where the group was seated. Investigators even analyzed the teapot that was used to serve Litvinenko, finding full radiation detection in the spout and on the lid. "[This] will give a flavor of the level of detail which the scientific evidence can gauge," Tam said.

Polonium-210, Emmerson said, can only be produced in an industrial setting with a nuclear reactor and involves a highly sophisticated process of enrichment.

Emmerson also claimed that the quantity of polonium allegedly used for the assassination would have cost tens of millions of dollars if purchased on the commercial open market. He said it is "unlikely in the extreme" that an individual or small group of attackers would have been chosen such a costly method. By contrast, Emmerson said, the Russian state produces this material itself, meaning that it is readily available to them. 

Emmerson also said he believes nothing in the evidence suggests that the assassins knew the characteristics of the poison they were handling, or even whether they knew it was radioactive.

"If they knew that it leaves enduring traces wherever it goes they would have realized that they were leaving a trail of nuclear trace footprints," Emmerson said, comparing it to the trail of breadcrumbs left by Hansel and Gretel.

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So far, it is uncertain who exactly will give evidence during the inquiry — some of those who have been asked are unlikely to acquiesce.

Russia has refused to extradite Kovtun and Lugovoi.

Lugovoi visited London several times in 2006. Kovtun was his childhood friend and a Russian army deserter. Kovtun moved to Germany after he left the military in 2002, and ended up working as a waiter until he found a job under Lugovoi six months before Litvinenko's death.

During October and November 2006, Lugovoi paid three visits to London and met Litvinenko each time. Kovtun accompanied Lugovoi on the first and last trips. Traces of polonium were found on many of the places they visited during these three trips — including bars, restaurants, airplanes, toilets, hotel rooms, and even at the Emirates Stadium, where Lugovoi and his family attended an Arsenal game on November 1, the day the two men allegedly poisoned Litvinenko.

The inquiry also heard that on the night before the alleged poisoning, Kovtun asked a former colleague in Hamburg whether he knew a London-based cook who could "put poison into Mr Litvinenko's food or drink." The colleague passed on the number of a cook, identified in court as "C2." The cook is expected to testify that someone called to ask if he was available, but that he said he was busy. Phone records will also be presented that reportedly link this call to a phone owned by Lugovoi.

'If they knew that it leaves enduring traces wherever it goes they would have realized that they were leaving a trail of nuclear trace footprints.'

In the interview transcripts from Litinvenko's hospital bed, the former KGB agent told police he went to the hotel to meet the two men, but that he didn't buy a drink because he was worried about cost. He said Lugovoi offered him some leftover green tea. "I poured some tea out of the pot," he said. "There was only a little left at the bottom. It was already cold. I swallowed some tea, about three or four times. I didn't like it for some reason."

Lugovoi has refused to give evidence to the inquiry, and Kovtun has fallen out of touch with the investigators, according to Tam. Both have denied the accusations against them, claiming they are being framed and that they too were victims of polonium poisoning, according to Tam.

Tam said it should also be noted that Lugovoi passed a polygraph test administered by Bruce Burgess of the UK Polygraph Association in 2012.

Emmerson was dismissive of this evidence. "Denials, ludicrous polygraph tests," he said. "None of it can displace the cold hard facts."

On November 21, 2006 — the day after Litvinenko died but before he was buried — Russian politician Sergei Abeltsev seemingly spoke approvingly of his demise while addressing the Duma, the lower house of Russia's legislature.

"The deserved punishment reached the traitor," Abeltsev said. "I am confident that this terrible death will be a serious warning to traitors of all colors wherever they are located. In Russia they do not pardon treachery."

Abeltsev is still a representative for the LDPR party, the same party that later offered Lugovoi a position in the Duma, something that ensures his immunity from prosecution.

Other disturbing facts emerged after Litvinenko's death, including the discovery that his photo was used as "target practice" by a Russian security firm associated with the country's special forces.

Litvinenko himself was born in 1962, and served in the Russian army for eight years before joining the Soviet counterintelligence services in 1988. He rose to become a senior operational officer in the KGB.

In 1998, Litvinenko went public with information about a plot by Russia's FSB spy agency to murder Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, a person that Litvinenko called a friend.

In 2002, Litvinenko co-authored a book with Yuri Felshtinsky titled Blowing up Russia: The Return of the KGB. The men argued that the 1999 terrorist bombing campaign that precipitated Russia's second war with Chechnya was organized by Russia's own security services. This conflict, in turn, propelled Putin to his position as president. According to Emmerson, an April 2002 Russian national poll showed as many as 40 percent of the Russian public thought the book's allegations were true.

A documentary film based on the book was made in the same year, and titled Assassination of Russia. Emmerson said three members of the Russian parliament who promoted the film were subsequently either killed or died in unexplained circumstances.

In 2004, Litvinenko's house was firebombed, apparently by two Chechen men. The house of his friend, exiled Chechen leader Akhmed Zakayev, was also targeted.

On October 13, 2006, Litvinenko and his family became British citizens during a ceremony at Haringey Town Hall in London. They initially sought asylum in 2000 after complaining of persecution in Russia. They also changed their names to Maria and Edwin Carter, though Litvinenko continued to use his original name for business purposes.

The week before their ceremony, on October 7, 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist and friend of Litvinenko, was murdered in Moscow. Politkovskaya had previously received death threats, and had also been reportedly poisoned when an unknown substance was put in her tea in 2004.

Speaking in London's Frontline Club after Politkovskaya's death, Litvinenko said he blamed Putin for the shooting, which was widely thought to be a contract killing.

At this time, according to the inquiry, Litvinenko was also involved in helping Spanish security forces examine Russian links to an organized crime group in Spain. It was likely, Emmerson said, that Litvinenko would have been a key witness in any subsequent trial.

In July 2006, Russian dissidents Vladimir Bukovsky and Oleg Gordievsky wrote what was later seen as a prophetic letter to the Times of London, pointing out new laws that had been passed in Russia that they interpreted as authorizing assassinations abroad. "The stage is set for any critic of Putin's regime here… to have an appointment with a poison-tipped umbrella," the letter read.

One law enabled Putin "to use his secret services as 'death squads' to eliminate 'extremists' anywhere abroad," Bukovsky and Gordievsky wrote. They said another, an amendment to an existing law on fighting extremism, widened the definition to include any "libelous" statements about the Russian administration.

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Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd

Photo via Wikimedia Commons