LONDON: The most sensational spy tale since the Cold War lands in a London court on Tuesday as an inquiry begins to examine alleged Russian state involvement in the radiation poisoning death of Alexander Litvinenko.
The former agent with Russia’s FSB security service, who was doing work for Britain’s MI6, was killed with Polonium 210 and the case was referred to at the time as the world’s first act of nuclear terrorism.
British investigators believe that the hard to detect radioactive isotope was stirred into Litvinenko’s tea by two acquaintances who were visiting him from Moscow, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun, at a meeting in a Mayfair hotel on November 1, 2006.
The rebel spy died three weeks later and a statement read out in his name accused President Vladimir Putin of direct involvement, saying that “the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life”.
The hearings begin at 1000 GMT on Tuesday and are expected to last around two months.
Many of them will be held behind closed doors because members of the secret services may have to testify and the remit for chairman Robert Owen includes examining intelligence documents.
Citing a source close to the investigation, Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper reported ahead of the hearings that communications between London and Moscow intercepted by the US National Security Agency pointed to Russian state involvement.
Owen, who was the coroner in a previous judicial inquest into Litvinenko’s killing, has said he believes there is evidence of “a prima facie case as to the culpability of the Russian state”.
The theory that Russia was behind the killing is not the only one, given Litvinenko’s investigative work in other European countries including Italy and Spain and his specialization in researching organized crime.
During the inquest, it also emerged that Litvinenko was working as a consultant for the MI6 foreign intelligence service receiving monthly payments of £2,000 (2,700 euros, $3,000) and reporting to a contact called “Martin”.
– ‘Defend his name’ –
Britain announced the inquiry in July 2014, just days after the downing of a Malaysian passenger jet over eastern Ukraine a tragedy blamed on Russia’s involvement in the conflict in the region in what was seen as a way of imposing sanctions on Russia.
British interior minister Theresa May said the inquiry would aim to find out “where responsibility for the death lies”, adding that she hoped that its conclusions “will be of some comfort to his widow”.
Marina Litvinenko told AFP in an interview before the hearings that this was the best she could hope for since Russia has refused to grant extradition requests for Lugovoi and Kovtun to stand trial.
“My struggle has been for the facts to be made public,” she said, adding: “This is the last thing I can do for him, defend his name.”
“For me it is just important to finally have an official explanation of Sasha’s death,” she said.
Litvinenko served in the KGB during Soviet times and then in its successor agency, the FSB.
In 1998, he and other FSB agents gave a press conference in Moscow accusing the agency of a plot to kill Boris Berezovsky, an oligarch who helped bring Putin to power but later turned against him.
Litvinenko was tried for abuse of power and although acquitted in 1999 he fled Russia, apparently through Georgia and Turkey with a fake passport.
He was later tried and sentenced in absentee on different charges that his family says, like the abuse of power allegations, were invented to silence him.
Litvinenko was granted asylum in Britain and later became a British citizen, also converting to Islam after befriending exiled Chechen separatist leaders.
He was buried in a London cemetery with Muslim rites in lead-lined coffin to prevent radiation leakage.