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Russian Accused of Poisoning Ex-KGB Agent Given Until Tuesday to Testify

Dmitry Kovtun is suspected of having helped assassinate former Russian spook Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with radioactive polonium in 2006 in London.

by Sally Hayden
Jul 27 2015, 6:05pm

Businessman Dmitry Kovtun looks on after he attended a news conference in Moscow, April 8, 2015. (Photo by Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters)

The often tense relationship between the United Kingdom and the Russian Federation was on display on Monday in Court 73, a beige room on the third floor of London's Royal Courts of Justice.

Months after the inquiry into the death of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko was adjourned to give one of the men accused of murdering him — Dmitry Kovtun — time to prepare his testimony, dejected lawyers gathered to confirm what they had secretly suspected: That Kovtun would not testify, despite his promises to do so.

Sir Robert Owen, the UK judge overseeing the inquiry into Litvinenko's death, said the ongoing complications were giving rise in his mind "to the gravest suspicion that an attempt is being made to manipulate the situation so as to enable [Kovtun] hereafter to assert that he would have been willing to give evidence to assist me in this inquiry, but has been unable to do so for reasons beyond his control."

Owen said he was reluctantly giving Kovtun the deadline of 9am on Tuesday to give evidence.

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

Litvinenko died in November 2006, three weeks after he drank green tea laced with radioactive polonium in a hotel bar in London's Grosvenor Square while in the company of Russian nationals Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi.

Litvinenko, an organized crime expert-turned Putin critic, had been granted British citizenship just a month earlier, six years after he fled Russia to claim political asylum following a series of arrests and threats made against him.

Both Kovtun and Lugovoi have previously denied involvement in the murder, and claim that Litvinenko must have poisoned himself by accident.

Kovtun had previously voiced his willingness to testify via videolink from Moscow, but said he was bound by confidentiality agreements with Russian authorities that barred him from testifying without their permission. The Russian authorities did not provide permission, he said, because he was not able to reach them.

Inquiry counsel Robin Tam said the Russian businessman seemed to have made no efforts to apply to have his confidentiality agreement waived.

If Kovtun no longer wants to give evidence "he should just say so," Tam concluded, "instead of advancing all these various reasons."

Richard Horwell, the lawyer representing Scotland Yard, viewed Kovtun's claims with similar skepticism.

"It is very strange indeed that notwithstanding the purported signing of a non-disclosure agreement, and an obligation of confidentiality to the Russian investigators, Kovtun has no problem speaking to journalists," he said, pointing out that Kovtun appeared to have done just that over the weekend.

"It appears that these proceedings are being manipulated in a coordinated way between Mr. Kovtun, the murderer, and the Russian state that sent him to commit the murder, a continuation of a collaboration that began in 2006," Ben Emmerson, the lawyer for Alexander Litvinenko's widow Marina, said.

Related: 'Russia Is Not the Same as Putin': Marina Litvinenko, Widow of Murdered Ex-KGB Agent Speaks to VICE News

A "Hansel and Gretel"-style trail of polonium followed Kovtun and Lugovoi's movements in late 2006, leaving testable traces everywhere they went — in Germany, on an airplane, in the Emirates Stadium in north London, in hotel rooms, toilets, bars, and an Itsu sushi restaurant.

On Friday, when the inquiry convened for the first time in months, a witness who went by the moniker D3 told the inquiry that Kovtun had met him in Germany in October 2006 and asked whether he knew a cook in London who could place "a very expensive poison" in someone's food. Traces of polonium were later found on the mattress in D3's Hamburg house that he and Kovtun slept on.

On Friday, Adam Straw, representing Marina Litvinenko, called Kovtun and Russia's actions an "apparent attempts to undermine the inquiry and to disrupt the evidence that has been given here."

Horwell, counsel for the Metropolitan Police, accused Kovtun of offering to give evidence as "a deliberate and calculated attempt to become a core participant and to obtain as much additional information about these proceedings as he could, and like the ICRF (Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation) before him, once so advantaged, to disappear."

"I hope I am wrong about all of those observations, but this constant posturing engenders cynicism," Horwell continued. "There is a certain inevitability about what will happen on Monday. The bookmakers' books will be closed, but if you do not give Kovtun at least the opportunity to give evidence, then he and the Russian authorities will blame your withdrawal of the videolink for the reason he did not give evidence."

Lugovoi, the other man accused of participating in the murder, is now a Russian MP, meaning he has immunity from prosecution.

After Litvinenko died in November, 2006, his body was buried in an air-tight, lead-lined coffin to avoid radiation seeping from his grave.

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. The couple also changed their names to Maria and Edwin Carter, though Litvinenko continued to use his original name for business purposes. From London, he worked with both Spanish and British intelligence services, and continued to pen articles that were critical of Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Speaking to VICE News in March, Marina Litvinenko said that she understood that a criminal prosecution was unlikely, but said she was glad the inquiry was establishing the exact details of what had happened to her husband in such a "professional" manner.

"I'd be absolutely happy if the Russian side would provide the same level of authorities and the same level of scientists [as the British side have]," she said. "It would mean there would be balance to discuss. But this is not balance."

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd

Watch the VICE News documentary, "Silencing Dissent in Russia: Putin's Propaganda Machine."