British government evidence relating to the death of the former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko amounts to a “prima facie case” that he was murdered by the Russian government, the coroner investigating his death has been told.
Hugh Davies QC, counsel to the inquest, told a preliminary hearing ahead of the full inquiry into his death that an assessment of government documents “does establish a prima facie case as to the culpability of the Russian state in the death of Alexander Litvinenko”.
Litvinenko died in a London hospital in November 2006, three weeks after drinking tea which had been poisoned with the radioactive isotope polonium-210.
The director of public prosecutions announced in May 2007 that it would seek to charge Andrei Lugovoi, a former KGB officer, with the murder, prompting a diplomatic crisis between the UK and Russia, which refused a request for the suspect be extradited to Britain to face trial. Lugovoi denies the charge.
Lawyers for the dead man’s widow Marina told the hearing Litvinenko had been “a paid agent and employee of MI6” at the time of his death, who was also, at the British secret service’s instigation, working for Spanish intelligence providing information on Russian state involvement in organised crime.
In a dramatic submission, Ben Emmerson QC told the coroner, Sir Robert Owen, that the inquest would hear evidence that the murdered man had been working for the British secret services under the direction of a dedicated handler who used the pseudonym of Martin.
While he was dying in hospital, Emmerson said, Litvinenko had given Martin’s number to a Metropolitan police officer and, without disclosing his MI6 connection, suggested the police follow up. He said Litvinenko had also had a dedicated phone that he used only for phoning Martin.
“Martin will no doubt be a witness in this inquiry,” Emmerson said.
The inquest would also hear evidence that Lugovoi had been working with Litvinenko in supplying intelligence to Spain, he told the hearing. He said that Litvinenko had phoned Lugovoi from hospital, using a dedicated phone he used only for his contacts with the other Russian, to tell him that he was unwell and would be unable to join him on a planned trip to Spain to deliver intelligence.
The case against Lugovoi centres on a meeting he and another Russian, Dmitry Kovtun, had with Litvinenko at the Palm bar at the Millennium hotel in Mayfair on 1 November 2006. It is alleged that Litvinenko’s tea was poisoned with the polonium-210 at that meeting. Kovtun also denies involvement.
At the instigation of MI6, Emmerson said, Litvinenko had been supplying information to a Spanish prosecutor, José Grinda González, regarding “organised crime, that’s Russian mafia activities in Spain and more widely”.
“The critical point was that it was MI6 who asked Mr Litvinenko to work for the Spanish security service,” the lawyer said, adding that Litvinenko had also had a Spanish handler who used the pseudonym Uri.
Litvinenko’s planned trip to Spain with Lugovoi aimed to deliver intelligence to Spanish prosecutors of Russian mafia links with the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin, Emmerson said.
The lawyer said the inquest should also consider whether the British government had been culpable in failing to protect Litvinenko, arguing that “the very fact of a relationship between Mr Litvinenko and his employers MI6” placed a duty on the government to ensure his safety when asking him to undertake “dangerous operations”.
“It’s an inevitable inference from all of the evidence that prior to his death MI6 had carried out a detailed risk assssment and that risk assessment must in due course be disclosed.”
Counsel for the Home Office, representing MI6, said the government could neither confirm nor deny that Litvinenko had been a British agent.
Russia has not formally been designated an interested party in the inquest, although the coroner will now rule on whether he intends to make it one. Luguvoi, however, is represented at the inquiry, as are the Home Office, the Metropolitan police and the Russian oligarch Boris Berezhovsky, a friend of Litvinenko who has successfully fought a libel action over allegations that he was involved in the murder.
The coroner will also rule on the scope of the inquest, including whether he will examine Russian or British state culpability, and whether he intends to sit with a jury.
Speaking outside Camden town hall after the hearing adjourned, Marina Litvinenko declined to comment on specific evidence raised in the hearing.
She said: “I would like to say I appreciate already what was done today and I am looking forward to any decision that will be taken by the coroner.”
The full inquest will open on 1 May 2013, the coroner said.