Litvinenko widow appeals for legal funds after Berezovsky backing runs out

The widow of the murdered Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko has appealed for help to pay her legal bills, after the Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky said he could no longer afford to support her.

Berezovsky sued his one-time friend and fellow oligarch Roman Abramovich for $5bn this year, but the high court case ended in defeat for Berezovsky, who was branded “unreliable” and “dishonest”, and has to pay costs running into tens of millions of pounds.

Berezovsy says he is now unable to fund Marina Litvinenko’s fees ahead of a long-awaited inquest into her husband’s death in 2006. The inquest next year is expected to hear evidence that Russian agents murdered the dissident using radioactive polonium. In an interview with the Guardian, Mrs Litvinenko said she believed her husband was the victim a Kremlin plot.

Evidence gathered by the Metropolitan police will be heard for the first time at the inquest, together with witness statements, CCTV recordings and forensic clues. The coroner, Sir Robert Owen, has promised an “open and fearless investigation” and has indicated he will consider “the alleged criminal role of the Russian state”.

Mrs Litvinenko appealed for donations to a new charitable fund, the Litvinenko Justice Foundation. Without financial help, she said, she would be unable to keep hold of her small legal team. “It’s important we know the truth. This isn’t just about my personal interest. Everybody needs to know what happened.”

She said she hoped the inquest would discredit competing theories about her husband’s death, which have flourished with Kremlin encouragement in Russia‘s media: that her husband killed himself, was murdered by MI6, or was targeted by Chechen gangsters. “I know the most important truth. My husband was killed. I don’t need to prove it. I know this because of polonium,” she said.

The rare radioactive isotope – discovered hours before Litvinenko died, three weeks after he first ingested it – was key to the murder, she said. “It’s difficult for ordinary people to get hold of it. It has a very short life. It’s a silent weapon. And Russia is the biggest producer. This looks like an organised operation against my husband.”

The Crown Prosecution Service has charged two Russians with Litvinenko’s murder: Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, both former KGB agents. But the government has concluded there is no realistic prospect of them ever standing trial in the UK. The Kremlin has ruled out their extradition, with Lugovoi now a member of Russia’s Duma.

Both suspects have been designated “interested parties” in the inquest; others include Mrs Litvinenko and her 18-year-old son; the Home Office; the Met police; Berezovsky; and possibly MI6. The first tranche of evidence was circulated to them last week.

Scotland Yard’s files are believed to show a trail of polonium left by Lugovoi and Kovtun across London. Polonium was also found in northern Germany, visited by Kovtun before he and Lugovoi met Litvinenko in the bar of the Millennium hotel on 1 November 2006. It was here that Litvinenko allegedly drank radioactive tea.

The inquest is unlikely to reveal who in Moscow authorised the alleged plot. “Someone had to make this decision to use it,” Mrs Litvinenko said. The motive for murdering Litvinenko, a career officer in the FSB, the KGB’s murky successor agency, was clear, she said: revenge.

“Sasha was one of the first who said that Russia was in danger from the FSB taking over the state. They said: ‘You are a traitor. You shouldn’t criticise the FSB.’ These people are now at the top of government.”

Had he lived, Litvinenko would have celebrated his 50th birthday this year. Mrs Litvinenko said her husband had been reluctant to leave Russia but had made Britain his adopted home. Weeks before his death he became a British citizen. “He loved England. It reminded him of Nalchik,” she said, referring to the city at the foot of the Caucasus mountains where he grew up. Of Russia’s growing opposition movement, she said: “People have grown tired of Putin.”

Mrs Litvinenko has a legal team of three: the human rights lawyer Ben Emmerson QC, a junior barrister and a solicitor. Her legal fees are likely to amount to £300,000, with the inquest due to last two to three months. A pre-hearing on 13-14 December will fix a date, most probably in the spring.

She said she was “very grateful” to Berezovsky for his support in the past. “Mr Berezovsky has made it clear he is no longer in a position to fund Mrs Litvinenko’s legal representation,” Emmerson confirmed. The tycoon had contributed a “lump sum” to her legal costs, but this had run out, he said, adding that her legal team were now working for free.

Since his bruising high court defeat, Berezovsky has withdrawn into private life, friends say. Fees from the case are estimated at £100m, with Berezovsky agreeing to pay £35m of Abramovich’s costs, according to lawyers. Berezovsky has dropped other legal cases and stopped funding his main anti-Kremlin political vehicle, the Civil Liberties Foundation. “Ironically, what the Kremlin could not do in a decade – shutting down Boris’s anti-Putin London operation – was done by a decision of an English court,” one friend said ruefully.

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