Litvinenko saga: British hypocrisy exposed in verdict 'probably' influenced by politics

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist, who is based in Russia
Marina Litvinenko, (R) widow of murdered ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, poses with a copy of The Litvinenko Inquiry Report with her son Anatoly (L) during a news conference in London, Britain, January 21, 2016. © Toby Melville
A British judge thinks that Vladimir Putin 'probably' ordered the killing of FSB turned Mi6 agent Alexander Litvinenko. Carlsberg don't do inquiries but, if they did they'd 'probably' be better than this one.

Back in the mid 1970's, Carlsberg's brewery in Northampton, England was searching for a slogan to market its beer. Due to laws against misrepresenting products, they were unable to state that it was "the best lager in the world." Thus, a compromise was found and a legendary advertising catchphrase was born. "Probably the best lager in the world."

Carlsberg's phrase became so famous that it spawned further commercials on the same theme. A classic was Lenny Abrahamson's effort, which featured a Dublin club with impossibly beautiful women, and a DJ that paused the music so customers could order drinks. The punchline declared: "Carlsberg probably don't do nightclubs, but if we did they'd probably be the best nightclubs in the world." 

Whether the former British judge Robert Owen is a Carlsberg drinker is unknown. However, he "probably" enjoys their promotional slots. His report into the death of Alexander Litvinenko has alleged that Russia's President Vladimir Putin "probably" ordered his killing. In other words, Owen wasn't sure if Litvinenko was murdered on Putin's instructions. If this were a criminal court, the case would collapse due to inconclusive evidence. Not before the presiding magistrate laughed the prosecution away from his bench.

Litvinenko, a former agent of Russia's FSB, the successor outfit to the KGB, defected in 2000 to Britain and worked there for Mi6. In November 2006, the spy died of acute radiation syndrome in a London hospital. Ever since, his demise has been used as political football in UK-Russia diplomacy. When bilateral dealings were reasonably kosher, the British inquiry froze. After they atrophied, the investigation suddenly started again. In 2014, during the acute phase of the Ukraine crisis, relations hit rock bottom. Of course, the British responded with renewed vigor and the Litvinenko hearings went into full swing.

Nearly never did it

After an inquiry held during a period of unprecedented anti-Russian feeling in the UK, finally we have Owen's verdict. Interestingly, much of the evidence presented to the former judge was kept private for "security reasons." Owen declared: "there can be no doubt that Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned by Mr. Lugovoi and Mr. Kovtun (two former KGB agents) in the Pine Bar of London's luxury Millennium Hotel on Nov. 1, 2006."

"I have further concluded that the FSB operation to kill Mr. Litvinenko was probably approved by My. Patrushev, then head of the FSB, and also by President Putin," he added. There's that word again, ‘probably.' In reality, Owen has no actual evidence that Putin ordered Litvinenko's murder. Instead, he is offering his own personal opinion. For instance, If Owen said that Maria Sharapova would ‘probably' win Wimbledon, that doesn't guarantee the Russian player will win Wimbledon. It means he thinks she will. Thus, when Owen alleges that Putin ‘probably' approved Litvinenko's poisoning, it doesn't follow, of course, that Putin DID sanction the killing.

That didn't stop the British media. Naturally, hysteria went into full overdrive. The Daily Mail, not known for restraint, decided there was a "new cold war." They seemed to have misread the actual report, "Images reveal how Russian spy was poisoned with polonium in London hotel - as bombshell report reveals Putin DID order his assassination," the Mail claimed. Of course, "did" is not "probably." The paper centered its coverage on Litvinenko's claims that Putin was a "pedophile." This was a new one. The usual western press accusation is that Russia's President has a secret family. With a woman.

Not to be outdone, The Daily Mirror quoted opposition figure Andy Turnham who called for Russia to be stripped of World Cup 2018. The fact that the UK government actually has no power to implement such a move doesn't seem to bother him. Indeed, the British obsession with Russia's victory in the World Cup bidding race, where England came last, exposes them as "sore losers." Every time something negative happens which involves Russia, their first response is "take the football away." As the London satirist Karl Sharro noted on Twitter, "if Miss Russia (at Miss World) was found to have used an illegal hairspray, England's reaction would be: ‘take the World Cup away from Russia."

The Sun, Britain's best-selling newspaper, also couldn't grasp the meaning of "probably." Their headline screamed, "Alexander Litvinenko "WAS murdered because he accused Putin of being a paedo".

The menace of hypocrisy

Russia's government responded angrily to the accusations. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marina Zakharova said: "it is no surprise that the launch of a public enquiry into Litvinenko's death coincided with the flaring of tensions in Ukraine. The UK authorities created a dangerous precedent where they used their domestic legal system in a politicly laden investigation."

Now, Zakharova has a point there. She also could have mentioned that, while the British only took ten years to complete their Litvinenko probe, it's been 26 years since their own agents "probably" murdered Irish civil rights lawyer, Pat Finucane.

In fact, it's strongly suspected that Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister, "probably" ordered the killing. Even Irish state TV believes the UK authorities did it. That suggests the Dublin government concurs.  

Despite pleading from his widow, Geraldine, the British authorities refuse to sanction an inquiry. Now, why does David Cameron believe that Marina Litvinenko, a Russian, has more right to an investigation into her husband's murder than Geraldine Finucane, who was born in the United Kingdom? The hypocrisy is shameful. Cameron should hang his head in shame.

The British pride themselves on their justice system. However, as we know very well in Ireland, its fairness is selective and can be influenced by the political issues of the day. The Guildford Four and Birmingham Six were testament to that.

If you were to rate the UK legal system overall, you'd say it "probably" needs improvement.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.