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17 May, 2013 16:46

Litvinenko inquest in peril: ‘Russian involvement not to be considered’

Litvinenko inquest in peril: ‘Russian involvement not to be considered’

The inquest into the death of former KGB spy Aleksandr Litvinenko is on the verge of falling apart after a judge ruled he couldn't hear evidence connected with the alleged involvement of the Russian state to the killing on grounds of "national security".

Robert Owen, the senior judge leading the inquest,  said that evidence which potentially implicated Russia in the 2006 murder would be excluded on grounds of national security. The judge further concluded that any material which demonstrated British intelligence or security services could have prevented Litviniko’s death could not be heard in the inquest.

He characterized issues of preventability and the Russian state's potential involvement as having "central importance" to the investigation into Litvinenko's death.

Owen published his ruling on Friday which, to his own acknowledgement, could result in an "incomplete, misleading and unfair" inquest into the former spy’s death, which is scheduled to begin on October 2. Under these circumstances, he argues it would be better "not to address the issues at all."

The judge said that holding a public inquiry, which would have the power to consider the sensitive evidence behind closed doors, might be the most appropriate course of action.

Evidence  which cannot be heard in secret as part of an inquest can be considered as part of a public inquiry.

Marina Litvinenko, widow of FSB agent Aleksandr Litvinenko. (AFP Photo / Javier Soriano)

Owen’s ruling came in light of an application from Foreign Secretary William Hague to keep some evidence secret.The judge said he was now prepared to hear submissions from all relevant parties, including Litvinenko’s widow and son, on the proposed semi-secret inquiry.

He further requested submissions on whether the questions of potential Russian state involvement and UK "preventability" of the murder should now be removed from the scope of the inquest.

A Government spokesman said they would “carefully consider this judgment.”

Litvinenko’s widow Marina said in a statement issued by her and her lawyer that she was "utterly dismayed" by Owen’s ruling. She accused both London and Moscow of striking a deal to improve relations chilled by the murder of her husband.

"All those concerned with exposing the truth will be shocked and saddened that a political deal has been done between the two governments to prevent the truth from ever seeing the light of day," the statement said.

Marina Litvinenko claimed the ruling was to “protect those responsible for ordering the murder of a British citizen on the streets of London”.

She and her lawyers are set to demand an open inquiry into the death of her husband. They have already applied to Owen with a letter demanding that within five days’ time, the judge forwards a request to the Justice Minister to set a trial into motion.

“The only way to find out the truth would be an order by the Justice Minister to hold an open trial, where restricted data could be considered at closed-door court hearings,” Marina Litvinenko’s statement reads, as cited by RIA Novosti.

In February, Owen said during a hearing at London's Royal Courts of Justice that it was his “duty to carry out a full, fearless and independent investigation into the circumstances of the death of Mr Litvinenko.”

"[The inquest] will be conducted with the greatest possible degree of openness and transparency," he continued.

The cost incurred as a result of the inquest will exceed £1,200,000 by the month’s end.

Inquest into Litvinenko’s death has faced delay after delay

The inquest into the spy's death was due to begin on May 1 but it got postponed until October by coroner Sir Robert Owen. The coroner said at the Royal Courts of Justice hearing in March that both the governments of the UK and Russia had been slow to release material.

Evidence had been asked for in January last year but had only begun to be provided in October, the coroner explained.

Both governments had requested that sensitive documents be kept out of the inquest for reasons of national security. This issue is still being deliberated by Sir Owen, he also agreed to keep secret any evidence that British intelligence services may have been able to prevent Litvinenko’s death.

Russian parliamentarian Andrey Lugovoy. (AFP Photo / Natalia Kolesnikova)

Andrey Lugovoy, who the Metropolitan Police have named as the prime suspect in the case, also stated in March that he would not attend the inquest as he would be unable to receive “justice” in Britain. Sir Robert Owen however said that Lugovoy had misunderstood what an inquest was.

“He appears to assert that there will be court sessions held in secret. That is a misunderstanding as to the nature of an inquest and the application that has been made on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government,” Sir Robert said.

An inquest is called to determine the cause of someone’s death, usually when someone dies in suspicious circumstances. However, while a verdict of an inquest may be murder it is not a trial and any criminal prosecution would follow after the inquest.

Lugovoy has denied any involvement and Russia has refused to extradite him for questioning. In February Sir Robert also ruled that evidence linking Litvinenko’s work with MI6 would also be heard in secret.

A spokesman for the Home Office, Neil Sheldon, said in March that the UK government remained committed to the inquiry.

“It is clearly appropriate and necessary that no conceivable stone is left unturned. We continue to work with your team to make sure they are turned,” he told the coroner.

Screenshot from YouTube user @journeymanpictures

Aleksandr Litvinenko, a former FSB officer, died in November 2006 after drinking tea, which had allegedly been laced with polonium 210. British detectives claimed that Lugovoy had poisoned him at the Millennium hotel in London.

On his death bed in hospital Litvinenko said he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin was behind his poisoning. He also accused Putin of being behind the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and said the FSB had staged a string of apartment bombings in Russia in 1999 in order to justify the second Chechen war, about which he wrote two books.

Litvinenko had been working alongside Spanish spies and MI6 before his death, it later emerged in the British press, allegedly investigating the workings of Russian criminal gangs based in Spain.

His father, as well as the Russian state, has accused Boris Berezovsky of being behind his death. Former FSB chief Nikolay Kovalyov, for whom Litvinenko worked, also said that the incident "looks like the hand of Boris Berezovsky”.

Berezovsky died in March in the UK where he had been living as a political exile since 2000, the cause of death has been reported as suicide by hanging.