LONDON – Media has joined lawyers for the family of poisoned Russian dissident, Alexander Litvinenko, who was working for MI6 before his 2006 death in London, in protesting government attempt to have parts of the inquest heard in secret.
The lawyers of Litvinenko’s widow Marina Litvinenko have alleged that Britain and Russia are “conspiring” to have parts of the inquest heard in secret in order to protect lucrative trade deals.
Litvinenko died in November 2006 at the age of 43, a few weeks after he secured British citizenship. He had unknowingly ingested polonium 210 a rare radioactive isotope at the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel in Grosvenor Square in London.
His family however believe the former Russian security service officer was poisoned.
William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, has signed a broad Public Interest Immunity (PII) certificate to prevent significant evidence from being heard in public, the pre-inquest was told.
The PII certificate would exclude some information from the inquest when it opens later this year.
They are usually issued on the grounds of national security.
Sir Robert Owen, the coroner, said he would rule on Wednesday on the government’s PII application. He did not reveal the particulars of the government’s request
Alex Bailin, a lawyer representing most of Britain’s main newspapers and broadcasters, has opposed the Foreign Secretary’s request.
The media “want the truth to be outed,” he said. “They have no other agenda.”
A lawyer representing the British government, Neil Sheldon, said the Foreign Secretary was exercising a “duty, not a right” in asking for some material to be withheld. Nothing short of this “will be sufficient to avert the risk of harm to the public interest,” Sheldon said.
He didn’t elaborate further on the content of the documents.
The inquest, which is separate from any criminal proceedings, has taken on greater importance now that the criminal case has faltered.
“It appears very likely that this inquest will be the only occasion on which the circumstances of Mr. Litvinenko’s death will be examined in a British court,” a lawyer for the inquest wrote in a submission to the court last week.
The inquest, overseen by a High Court judge acting as coroner, is scheduled to begin in May.
Tuesday was one of several pre-inquest hearings called to determine the scope of the inquest.
At another pre-inquest hearing in December, the lead lawyer for the inquest said British government documents showed the Russian state was culpable in Litvinenko’s poisoning. Russia has always denied any involvement.
A lawyer representing Litvinenko’s widow, meanwhile, said on Tuesday in court her late husband was working for British spy agency MI6 at the time of his death.
A lawyer representing the U.K. government said he would “neither confirm nor deny” that assertion.
On Feb. 7, Foreign Secretary Hague submitted a document to the court asking that it allow the government to withhold some information from the inquest, saying disclosure could cause “serious harm to the public interestin this case, to the national security and/or international relations interests of the United Kingdom.”
He gave no further details about the information in his written request.
The court is now likely to hold a closed hearing, with only certain lawyers present, to examine some of the government documents and determine whether they may be withheld.
In court Tuesday, Ben Emmerson, a lawyer for Litvinenko’s widow, opposed any evidence being withheld.
“We know Her Majesty’s government has material suggesting Russia was behind the murder,” he said, adding that he believes this is part of the evidence the U.K. wants to withhold.
Suppression of any such evidence could cause the public to believe that Britain is trying to appease Russia in order to promote trade ties, Emmerson said.
At an earlier pre-inquest hearing Emmerson said the Russian had been a paid agent of MI6 and argued the inquest should examine the secret service’s relationship with him.
Sir Robert Owen, a judge acting as the coroner, has said he would examine what was known of threats to Litvinenko’s life and also whether the Russian state was responsible for his death.
He has also agreed that a group representing Russian state prosecutors can be accepted as a party to the inquest process.
The coroner hearing the case said that it may now be postponed.
“Due to the complexity of the investigation which necessarily precedes the hearings,” the coroner, Owen, said, “it may not be possible to adhere” to the planned May 1 start date for the hearings.
The inquest would be the first and probably the only public forum where witnesses would testify under oath about the killing, which strained Britain’s relationship with the Kremlin and kindled memories of the cold war.