Alan Cowell – New York Times September 21, 2012
A slow-moving effort to hold an inquest into the poisoning death of a Russian whistle-blower, Alexander V. Litvinenko, moved ahead on Thursday in London, with the British authorities insisting in a preliminary hearing that possible contacts between him and the British secret intelligence service MI6 should not be disclosed.
While there was no immediate ruling on the secrecy claim, associates of Mr. Litvinenko expressed confidence that the restrictions would be lifted.
Mr. Litvinenko, a former K.G.B. officer and critic of the Russian authorities who had won asylum and citizenship in Britain, died in November 2006 after ingesting a rare radioactive isotope, polonium 210, from a teapot at a meeting with Russian contacts at the Millennium Hotel in Grosvenor Square in London.
Mr. Litvinenko’s death, coinciding with other strains between London and Moscow, chilled relations between Britain and Russia, leading to tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats reminiscent of the cold war. Russia’s refusal to hand over the man accused of killing Mr. Litvinenko has since stymied efforts to restore normal ties.
British prosecutors are seeking the extradition of the suspect, Andrei K. Lugovoi, another former K.G.B. officer who was present at the meeting at the Millennium Hotel, to face murder charges. Mr. Lugovoi, who is now a member of the Russian Parliament, has denied any wrongdoing. Russian authorities say their Constitution forbids extradition of their own citizens.
Mr. Litvinenko’s critics had long asserted that he maintained ties with British intelligence services, but those contacts — if they took place — remain murky.
At the hearing on Thursday, Sir Robert Owen, a senior judge appointed to oversee the oft-delayed inquest, said: “It has been almost six years since his death in November 2006. Such a delay is regrettable.”
“There will be no further delay,” he said, according to Britain’s Press Association news agency. “It is manifestly in the interests of the interested persons, in particular his widow, Marina Litvinenko, and his son Anatoly Litvinenko, of the other interested persons and in the wider public interest that the inquest is brought to a conclusion with due expedition.” He said hearings would begin next year.
One part of the evidence to be shown to relatives and other people involved in the case will be a report by Scotland Yard on the events leading up to the poisoning of Mr. Litvinenko, who had become a British citizen only weeks before he died.
But Hugh Davies, a lawyer representing the inquiry, said the British government had requested that references in the report as to whether Mr. Litvinenko had contacts with MI6 be kept secret. While those aspects of the police report are known to the coroner and members of the legal team conducting the inquiry, he said, they will not be disclosed to the other parties in the case.
He said details of any contacts had “been redacted from the report at the request of Her Majesty’s Government.”
“This redaction, of course, should not be taken as indicating one way or the other whether Mr. Litvinenko did indeed have any such contact,” Mr. Davies said.
Ben Emmerson, a lawyer representing Mr. Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, said she was “keen that the significance of all the evidence, including that which is redacted, is in one way or another fairly and independently evaluated and that as much as is possible should be made public.”
Mrs. Litvinenko wanted to know whether her husband’s death was “a targeted assassination of a British citizen committed by agents of a foreign state in the sovereign territory of the United Kingdom,” the lawyer said.
Mrs. Litvinenko, whose husband accused Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian leader, of being responsible for his poisoning, told reporters that she believed that “we will get justice in Britain.”
“It was a British citizen killed here, a British soul,” she said. “I’m not a politician, I’m a woman who lost her husband and I want to know what happened.”
In Moscow, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Alexander Lukashevich, told reporters that Russia expected the inquest in London “to give an exhaustive picture of what happened and that it will shed light on all the facts that are needed to reveal the truth,” Agence France-Presse reported.
He said Britain’s chief suspect had proved himself innocent by taking a lie-detector test, apparently a reference to a test Mr. Lugovoi reportedly took for a television documentary in April.