Robert Service

Murder most foul

Alexander Litvinenko’s gruesome poisoning in 2006 continues to pose many disturbing questions — not least over Britain’s cynical attitude to justice

On 1 November 2006 Alexander Litvinenko, ex-KGB officer and by then a British citizen, met two of his former colleagues, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun, in Mayfair and drank a cup of tea with them. What happened next must count as the century’s most gruesome crime so far. The tea taken by Litvinenko was laced with a dose of polonium-210 and he died in agony in UCH several days later. The radioactive substance was detected on a belated hunch of a brilliant forensic scientist. The suspects, Lugovoi and Kovtun, had already left Britain, and the Metropolitan Police found polonium deposits at nearly every hotel and shop that they had visited.

Litvinenko’s widow Marina told the world that her husband was the victim of an assassination masterminded by none other than President Putin and his FSB. The Home Office at the time was reluctant to disturb diplomatic relations with Russia and withheld cooperation from the inquest led by Judge Robert Owen.

The political situation changed in early 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea and the United Kingdom and other western powers applied economic sanctions. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced permission for a public inquiry and brought Owen back from retirement to head it. Over several months the inquiry laboriously took its evidence in open and closed proceedings. Lugovoi and Kovtun obstructed progress by refusing to submit to oral examination.

The inquiry was a multidisciplinary process that tested the wits of everyone present as researchers in disparate arcane fields strove to make their findings intelligible to non-specialists. As someone who gave written and oral evidence, I can testify to the judge’s scrupulousness in helping witnesses through the cross-examination when the questions from the lawyers seemed inappropriate or unhelpful.

In A Very Expensive Poison, the Guardian journalist Luke Harding gives a superb exposition of the cast of people — FSB agents, MI6 informers, international money launderers, atomic scientists, hospital doctors, academics and London police officers — who were involved in the inquiry.

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