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Putin on Trial in London, Accused of Ordering Nuclear Assassination of Ex-KGB Agent

Alexander Litvinenko died in 2006 after being poisoned with radioactive polonium 210. The nine-year investigation into his murder has been one of the most extensive investigations in British criminal history.

by Sally Hayden
Jul 31 2015, 6:23pm

Photo via Alex Goldfarb

Following 34 days of hearings, 62 oral testimonies, a mass of documents, and written evidence from a significant number of further witnesses, the inquiry into one of the UK's most horrific murders of recent times has drawn to a close.

Russian dissident, ex-KGB agent, and British citizen Alexander Litvinenko died a painful death in 2006, three weeks after consuming a "colossal" amount of the radioactive substance polonium-210. The Russian state, and President Vladimir Putin in particular, stand accused of ordering the 43-year-old's murder, while current MP Andrei Lugovoi and Russian businessman Dmitry Kovtun are believed to have carried it out.

Litvinenko's postmortem is thought to have been the most dangerous ever conducted in the UK. Following the suspension of an inquest and Russia's refusal to extradite either of the men under suspicion, the inquiry's public hearings began in January.

Evidence introduced in court included an analysis of the levels of polonium found in the Pine Bar in London's Millennium Hotel, where Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned. Photo via Metropolitan Police

In his closing statement, Ben Emmerson, the lawyer for Alexander's widow Marina Litvinenko, paid tribute to the UK's Metropolitan Police over their "painstaking investigation… over what is now almost a decade." This was one of "the most particular, professional, and most extensive investigations in British criminal history," he said.

Emmerson said that the "pivotal evidence" that "proved the case against [Lugovoi and Kovtun] beyond reasonable doubt," was the primary contamination traces left by polonium-210 that were discovered around London in places that only the two Russian men had been. Primary contamination is caused by direct contact with the radioactive substance. Emmerson had previously called this a "Hansel and Gretel" trail. 

The five places this was detected were the bedroom at the Best Western hotel where Lugovoi stayed in mid-October, his bedroom at the Sheraton Hotel later that month, Kovtun's bedroom in the Millennium Hotel, the boardroom at private security company Erinys where Lugovoi met Litvinenko in mid-October, and the table and teapot at Pine Bar, where Litvinenko drank the fatal dose of polonium-210, after it had been mixed with green tea.

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

Emmerson pointed out that security camera footage shows that Lugovoi and Kovtun visited the bathroom in Pine Bar shortly before Litvinenko arrived on November 1, 2006, leaving polonium-210 traces behind them.

Emmerson also pointed to Lugovoi's seemingly reckless behavior in the wake of the murder, including the fact that he told a Spanish newspaper in December 2008 that he would have ordered Litvinenko's assassination if he had had the authority to do so, and the shocking detail that in July 2010 Lugovoi sent a t-shirt to another Putin-critic and friend of Litvinenko, Boris Berezovsky, that was emblazoned with the words: "Polonium 210 — To Be Continued," and "Nuclear Death Is Knocking Your Door."

Both Kovtun and Lugovoi have denied involvement, with Kovtun promising to testify in this inquiry before pulling out earlier this week.

Evidence introduced in court included an analysis of the levels of polonium found in the teapot that Alexander Litvinenko drank green tea from in the Pine Bar in London's Millennium Hotel. Photo via Metropolitan Police

On March 9, as the inquest continued to hear seemingly damning testimony, Putin awarded Lugovoi a medal of honor for services to Russia, in what Emmerson labeled a "menacing gesture of support."

Emmerson alleged that this was proof that "Putin and his personal cabal are directly involved in organized crime, that they are willing to murder those who stand in their way and Mr Litvinenko was murdered for that reason." He also said that the enmity between Litvinenko and Putin — who were acquainted — "was of a highly personal nature."

Emmerson then went on to list the reasons he said the inquiry can be certain that Putin directly ordered the killing.

Firstly, he said, polonium-210 in such a pure form could have only been produced by a nuclear reactor. In 2006, some 97 percent of the world's polonium was being produced at Russia's Avangard facility, about 450 miles southeast of Moscow, and could not have been taken without permission.

He then noted that Lugovoi was working closely with KGB officials, and appears to both astonishingly successful and well protected ever since — his current position in the Russian Duma gives him immunity from prosecution. Emmerson also claimed that neither Kovtun nor Lugovoi had a motive to kill Litvinenko, unlike Putin, who was increasingly being exposed and implicated by Litvinenko's investigations into Russian organized crime. 

Litvinenko had been behind an increasingly critical set of reports, including his co-authored 2002 book Blowing Up Russia, which accused the Kremlin of being behind the September 1999 Russian apartment bombings that led the country into the Second Chechen War, and another book The Gang from Lubyanka, which detailed links between the Russian security services, Putin, and organized crime.

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

In the summer of 2006, Litvinenko began consulting for two companies — RISC Management and Titon International. He brought Lugovoi in as a trusted collaborator on both investigations. Several of the resulting reports — including several co-written with Yuri Shvets, another former KGB agent — contained serious allegations about Putin and other high-up FSB [Russian state security agency] members, and one resulted in former deputy FSB director Viktor Ivanov losing out on a deal worth $10 million. Lugovoi was aware of the details contained in each report.

In the year of his death, Litvinenko was also involved in a corruption investigation in Spain, and was on the payroll of the British intelligence services.

Training for the Russian special forces used a picture of Alexander Litvinenko for use in target practice.

Richard Horwell, lawyer for the London Metropolitan Police, was slightly more cautious about the Russian president's involvement in the murder, saying in his closing statement on Thursday that — while the "only credible evidence" suggested the Russian state was involved in some form or another — the allegations that Putin had personally ordered the killing "cannot have the force of evidence."

In February 2006, two changes came into Russian law. The first authorized the use of lethal force against terrorists abroad, and the second widened the definition of extremism to include the "public slander of any person occupying an official position." The same year, Litvinenko's picture was being used as target practice for Russian troops.

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

"Today marks the end of the inquiry into my husband's death," Marina told reporters after the inquiry had finished. "I believe that the truth has finally been uncovered. The murderers and their paymasters have been unmasked. My son Anatoly and I would like to thank everyone who has supported us in getting to this day."

Marina said that her husband had fought to expose corruption in Russia. "His actions were perceived as a danger and he paid the ultimate price," she said.

She also told reporters: "There is little doubt in my mind that the order for his murder came from the Kremlin."

Litvinenko Inquiry chairman Robert Owen also thanked those involved in the inquiry, and in particular Marina and Anatoly. He praised Marina's "demonstration to uncover the truth about her husband's death," and the "quiet dignity she had shown throughout the hearings." Owen's verdict will be delivered before Christmas.

Meanwhile, Lugovoi told Russian news agency Interfax that the inquiry had been "biased." "These proceedings have long since stopped being of interest to me, since I understood a long time ago that they are biased and politicized," he said

A Kremlin spokesman also responded to the accusations. "Such statements were made without any results from the investigation, and after there were results of some sort of investigation," he said. "It seems they had to add something, so that their words could seem convincing."

Photographers waiting for Marina Litvinenko outside London's Royal Courts of Justice. Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News

Litvinenko 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.

Litvinenko and his family left Russia in 2000 and sought asylum in the UK after complaining of persecution. They also changed their names to Maria and Edwin Carter, though Litvinenko continued to use his original name for business purposes.

On October 13, 2006, Litvinenko and his family became British citizens during a ceremony at Haringey Town Hall in London.

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.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd