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Britain admits Russia ties influenced Litvinenko decision

Britain refused to hold a public inquiry into the poisoning of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in part because of fears that it could damage ties with Russia, according to a letter published on Friday.

Interior minister Theresa May wrote to the coroner investigating the 2006 death of the ex-spy in London and explained that “international relations” were an issue in her decision, although they were not decisive.

Coroner Robert Owen had sought a full public inquiry after complaining that his own lower-level inquest was hamstrung because he was not allowed to review secret evidence about possible Kremlin involvement in the murder.

Litvinenko, a 43-year-old former agent with Russia’s FSB agency, was poisoned with radioactive polonium-210 while drinking tea at a London hotel.

His widow Marina has claimed he was working for Britain’s foreign intelligence agency MI6 at the time of his slow and agonising death, and that he was killed on Moscow’s orders.

The murder froze relations between Russia and Britain but London has been trying to improve things in recent years.

“It is true that international relations have been a factor in the government’s decision-making,” May wrote in her letter.

“An inquest managed and run by an independent coroner is more readily explainable to some of our foreign partners, and the integrity of the process more readily grasped, than an inquiry established by the government, under a chairman appointed by the government, which has the power to see government material potentially relevant to their interests, in secret.

“However, this has not been a decisive factor and if it had stood alone would not have led the government to refuse an inquiry. It remains, however, a factor that the government takes into account.”

May argued that a public inquiry would be expensive and take too long, and disagreed with the coroner’s claim that his inquest had been undermined.

Inquests are held in England and Wales to examine sudden or unexplained deaths. They set out to determine the place and time of death as well as how the deceased came by their death, but they do not apportion blame.

“The government believes, with respect, that it would be perfectly possible to conduct an inquest aimed at answering the statutory questions without considering the sensitive material at all,” May wrote.

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.