U.K. launches inquiry into radiation poisoning of former KGB agent

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SpooksU.K. launches inquiry into radiation poisoning of former KGB agent

Published 24 July 2014

British authorities have announced that a public inquiry will be held into the death of former Russian KGB officer who became a British citizen, Alexander Litvinenko.Litvinenko, 43, died in 2006 after he was poisoned with radioactive polonium while drinking tea with two former KGB agents at a London hotel.

British authorities have announced that a public inquiry will be held into the death of former Russian KGB officer who became a British citizen, Alexander Litvinenko. U.K. Home Secretary Theresa May said she hoped the investigation would be of “some comfort” to Litvinenko’s wife, who believes that her husband was working for British intelligence agency, MI6, at the time of his death.

Litvinenko, 43, died after he was poisoned with radioactive polonium while drinking tea with two former KGB agents at a London hotel. His family believes he was killed on orders of the Kremlin, leading the investigation to examine whether the Russian government was behind his murder. Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, said she was “relieved and delighted,” that the “truth will win out in the end.”

The BBC reports that the inquiry will be chaired by senior judge Sir Robert Owen, who was the coroner at Litvinenko’s inquest last year. Owen delayed the inquest and requested a public inquiry because the inquest could not examine evidence considered sensitive to national security. The public inquiry expected to begin 31 July and conclude by end of 2015, will examine all evidence but some sessions will be closed to the public for national security reasons.

One of the suspects, Andrei Lugovoi, told the Russian Interfax news agency that the decision to launch an inquiry was “the height of cynicism.” In May 2007, British authorities requested that Lugovoi, now a politician in Russia, be extradited and be charged with murder, but Russia refused.

Lawyers for Litvinenko’s wife believe the British government failed to fully investigate Litvinenko’s death at the time of his murder in order to maintain the secrecy of Litvinenko’s involvement with MI6, and to maintain the U.K.-Russian relationship at the time. Former director of public prosecutions Ken Macdonald said, “this was a particularly foul murder; the infliction of a slow, lingering radioactive death.” Adding that Litvinenko was “under the protection” of Britain at the time, and if Russia was involved, the inquiry would “expose that.”

Legal analysts monitoring the recent announcement believe the timing of a public inquiry, just as European powers are reviewing sanctions against Russia for its support of Ukrainian separatists responsible for the Malaysia Airlines crash, could simply be a coincidence.

The BBC offers this outline of the Litvinenko case:

  • 1 November 2006 — Alexander Litvinenko has tea with former KGB agents Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun in London
  • 4 November 2006 — After three days of vomiting, Litvinenko is admitted to a hospital, and dies twenty-two days later. His death is attributed to radiation poisoning
  • May 2007 — British government decides Lugovoi should be charged with the murder of Litvinenko. Lugovoi denies any involvement but says Litvinenko was a British spy
  • 5 July 2007 — Russia officially refuses to extradite Lugovoi, prompting a diplomatic row
  • 20 September 2012 — Pre-inquest review hears that Russia’s links to the death will be probed
  • May-June 2013 — Inquest into Litvinenko’s death delayed as coroner decides a public inquiry would be preferable
  • January 2014 — Marina Litvinenko in High Court fight to force a public inquiry
  • 11 February 2014 — High Court ruled that the Home Office had been wrong to rule out an inquiry before the outcome of an inquest
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