Fair inquest for Litvinenko impossible, judge warns

Terri Judd — The Independent May 17, 2013

The judge investigating the killing of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko said that the British Government’s cover-up of vital evidence was making it impossible for him to conduct a fair inquest.

The inquest into the death of the 42-year-old spy, who was poisoned by polonium-210, appeared in danger of collapsing before it had begun last night after Sir Robert Owen suggested that a public inquiry might be a better forum to examine the evidence.

Mr Litvinenko died in November 2006 after meeting two former KGB contacts – Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun – at the Millennium Hotel in Grosvenor Square, London. British prosecutors named Mr Lugovoy as the main suspect in the case but Russia has refused to extradite him to the UK for questioning.

Mr Litvinenko’s widow Marina Litvinenko has always maintained that her husband, who fled to the UK in 2000, was working with MI6 and that Mr Lugovoy was acting under instruction from the Kremlin. The long-postponted inquest had been due to start in October.

Lawyers for the Foreign Secretary William Hague had applied for information relating to Russian state involvement, as well as how much British intelligence services could have done to prevent the death, to be excluded from the inquest. Yesterday in his ruling Sir Robert, assistant deputy coroner in charge of the inquest, rejected parts of the application but upheld the Secretary of State’s claim on the two central issues of Russian involvement and preventability.

Pointing out that he had no power to take evidence in secret in an inquest, Sir Robert said this left him with two unsatisfactory options. If he kept the issues within the scope of the inquest relying on the limited open evidence available, he would “fail to discharge my duty to undertake a full, fair and fearless inquiry into the circumstances of Mr Litvinenko’s death”.

But to exclude them all together, he added, would be “to leave uninvestigated two issues that are of central importance”, adding: “To attempt to address such issues without being able to take such material into account has the inevitable consequence that the inquiry would be incomplete, and a verdict potentially misleading and/or unfair to the Interested Parties or to others who might be implicated, in particular the Russian State.”

He therefore concluded that a public inquiry, where evidence could be heard in secret, might be the best option, if this was requested by any of the interested parties, which include Mrs Litvinenko, Mr Lugovoy, the Metropolitan Police and the Russian state.

Sir Robert said he was very aware that, as the international arrest warrants issued by the Metropolitan Police for Mr Lugovoy and Mr Kovtun were unlikely ever to be executed, the inquest was Mrs Litvinenko’s only chance to have the circumstances surrounding her husband’s death examined in a British court.

On a recent pre-inquest hearing, Mrs Litvinenko’s barrister Ben Emmerson QC accused the British government of conspiring with the Russians to withhold evidence that the latter was responsible for the former KGB agent’s death. He said for the coroner to have to exclude evidence of Russian involvement would be “staggering”.

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