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UK-Based Russian Businessman Possibly Poisoned With Rare Chinese Plant

A court outside London heard evidence Monday that a UK-based Russian businessman may have been poisoned with a rare toxic plant found only in rural China.
May 19, 2015, 10:26pm
Businessman Dmitry Kovtun on April 8, 2015. Kovtun is one of two Russians accused of poisoning former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev

A court outside London heard evidence Monday that a UK-based Russian businessman may have been poisoned with a rare toxic plant found only in rural China.

Alexander Perepilichny died on November 10, 2012, while out for a run near his home in Surrey, in England's south east. Friends of the dead man have long suggested that he was murdered, though a police investigation initially ruled that there were nothing suspicious about his death.

The testimony took place on Monday at a pre-inquest hearing. The full inquest into Perepilichny's death was scheduled to begin on Monday, but delayed after the new evidence was produced by Professor Monique Simmonds, a plant expert at the Royal Botanic Gardens in south-west London.

Representing one of the dead man's life insurers, Bob Moxon Browne spoke at Monday's hearing in Woking, a town outside London, stating that Simmonds had discovered a specific chemical in Perepilichny's stomach that could only come from the highly toxic Gelsemium plant — which only grows in remote areas of China.

The plant is a "known weapon of assassination by Chinese and Russian contract killers," Browne said.

Perepilichny moved to Britain in 2009. He was involved in investigating fraud, and proceeded to pass along documents that exposed the beneficiaries of a tax fraud initially uncovered by Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who was arrested and died after being denied medical care and reportedly beaten in a Russian prison. Along with uncovering the fraud, Magnitsky named a string of Russian interior ministry officials and crime figures who he said were associated with the scam.

Perepilichny is the fifth person linked to the Magnitsky case to have died in suspicious circumstances, according to Bill Browder, a US-born businessman and co-founder of Hermitage Capital Management who received documents from Perepilichny.

Mobile phone footage filmed by a 24-year-old local named Liam Walsh on the night Perepilichny died seemed to show his body lying on the ground in a vacant lane.

Speaking later about the incident, Walsh said: "He wasn't breathing. We had to get him on the back and start doing CPR [first aid]. He was probably dead for a while."

After Perepilichny's death, a police spokeswoman stated: "It is being treated as unexplained. A postmortem examination was carried out which was inconclusive. So further tests are now being carried out."

An investigation later carried out by the Surrey Police ruled that there was nothing suspicious about the 44-year-old's death.

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

Speaking to VICE News on Tuesday, Browder criticized the Surrey police for not finding someone who could detect the poison in Perepilichny's body before now.

"These questions should have been asked and answered two years ago," he said. "Ever since November 2012, when [Perepilichny] died, I've believed that he has been murdered."

As soon as Browder found out about the death he said that he contacted the Surrey police to tell them about his suspicions and to ask them to do both a murder investigation and a toxicology analysis.

"They refused to respond to our requests," he charged, adding that it was only after they approached the Independent, which proceeded to publish a story, that the police "begrudgingly" launched a murder investigation, "before claiming they found nothing suspicious."

Browder added: "It's not clear who actually poisoned [Perepilichny]. It could have been anybody, but I would obviously blame Russian organized crime with very close connections with the Russian government. The people who benefited from the $230 million tax rebate fraud that Sergei Magnitsky uncovered are the most likely suspects to be investigated. They're the ones with the most motive."

The Daily Telegraph also noted a connection between Dzhirsa — a Russian-based business consultancy who had filed at least four lawsuits against Perepilichny —  and Dmitry Kovtun, one of the men accused of poisoning former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who was also involved in exposing corruption and organized crime.

Kovtun is Dzhirsa's founder and general director. Browder told VICE News he had heard of the link with Kovtun's company but wasn't aware of the details surrounding it. The Daily Telegraph did note that there is no evidence to suggest that Kovtun had any involvement in Perepilichny's death.

When asked what he was hoping would come from a full inquest, Browder responded: "The truth. The truth that Alexander Perepilichny was murdered, that he was murdered in the following way, and what was and wasn't done in the investigation so if there's anything more that can be done to figure out who was behind it it will be done."

The inquest has now been adjourned until September.

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

_Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: _@sallyhayd