Litvinenko UK inquest in doubt after Russia evidence excluded

18th May 2013, Comments 0 comments

The inquest into the death in Britain of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko is close to being scrapped after the coroner ruled Friday he could not hear evidence about the alleged role of the Kremlin in his poisoning.

Litvinenko's widow Marina said she was "utterly dismayed" by the decision, which followed an application by Britain's foreign ministry to keep the information secret.

Coroner Robert Owen said in a pre-hearing ruling that he would be failing in his duty "to undertake a full, fair and fearless inquiry into the circumstances of Mr Litvinenko's death" if he was forced to disregard the evidence for national security reasons.

He suggested that the death could instead be considered in a public inquiry in which the evidence alleging Russian state involvement "could be taken into account".

The coroner said he now wanted to hear submissions from Marina Litvinenko and the couple's son on the possibility of holding an inquiry, parts of which would have to take place behind closed doors.

Litvinenko, 43, suffered a slow and agonising death after he was poisoned with radioactive polonium-210 slipped into his tea at an upmarket London hotel in 2006.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague has sought to prevent information regarding the death from being revealed during the inquest, which is due to start later this year.

The coroner said he partly agreed with Hague's request.

It is thought that Litvinenko was working for Britain's MI6 intelligence service at the time of his death and his family believe he was killed on the orders of the Kremlin.

British police have sought the arrest of two Russian nationals in relation to the death -- Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun -- but Moscow has refused to hand them over.

The Litvinenko case plunged relations between Russia and Britain into a deep freeze from which they have only recently emerged.

Marina Litvinenko's solicitors said in a statement that it was a "very sad day for British justice."

"Mrs Litvinenko is utterly dismayed by the coroner's decision to abandon his search for the truth about Russian state responsibility for her husband's death," the statement said.

"The effect of today's ruling is to protect those responsible for ordering the murder of a British citizen on the streets of London, and to allow the Russian government to shield behind a claim for secrecy made by William Hague with the backing of the Prime Minister David Cameron."

Alex Goldfarb, a friend of the Litvinenko family, said the coroner's decision was "deeply dismaying". He accused the British government of prioritising its relationship with Russia over the need to hold an open inquest.

"It appears the British government is more concerned about the use of chemical weapons in Syria than radioactive weapons being used on the streets of London," he said.

"On the other hand, it's an admission by the British government that the Russian state is culpable because otherwise they would not have requested immunity," he added.

"That in itself is a partial victory for Marina."

Under British law, evidence cannot be heard in secret as part of an inquest, but could be presented behind closed doors as part of a public inquiry.

Prime Minister David Cameron visited Russia last week to hold talks with President Vladimir Putin in a bid to forge a joint approach to the crisis in Syria.

A spokesman for the government said it would "carefully consider" the coroner's judgement.


© 2013 AFP

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