Spy death inquest must assign blame

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FILE - In this May 10, 2002 file photo, Alexander Litvinenko, Kremlin critic and author of the book "Blowing Up Russia: Terror From Within", poses for a photograph at his home in London. (AP Photo/Alistair Fuller, File)

London - An inquest into the death of a former Russian agent who died in London after being poisoned with a radioactive isotope could examine whether the British government is culpable in his murder, a lawyer said on Friday.

Alexander Litvinenko, a Kremlin critic who had been granted British citizenship, died days after he was poisoned with polonium-210, a highly toxic radioactive isotope, which was slipped to him in a cup of tea at a plush London hotel in 2006.

On his death bed he accused Russian spies of ordering his killing, but lawyer Hugh Davies, an attorney acting on behalf of the inquest itself, said its scope could include the possibility that the British secret service bore some responsibility.

The inquest could look into “the possible culpability of the British state in the death of Alexander Litvinenko either ... in carrying out by itself or its agents the poisoning; or ...(in)failing to take reasonable steps to protect Mr Litvinenko from a real and immediate risk to his life,” Davies said at a preliminary hearing.

He did not elaborate.

British police and prosecutors say there is enough evidence to charge two former KGB agents Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun with the murder.

Russia has refused to extradite Lugovoy and his absence from Friday's pre-inquest hearing was highlighted by a green place card bearing his name in the wood-panelled court room in North London.

Under British law, an inquest, or judicial-led inquiry, is held when a person dies unexpectedly to determine the cause of death. It cannot apportion criminal or civil blame.

Anglo-Russian relations plunged to a post-Cold War low in the aftermath of Litvinenko's death and the subsequent allegations and the inquest could inflame tensions.

Lawyers for Litvinenko's widow have asked that MI6 and the FSB, of the Russian and British secret services, also be asked to become “interested parties” in the inquiry, which would require them to take an active role in proceedings.

The court will decide the full scope of the inquest in a final hearing on Dec. 13-14 and there are a “number of competing and increasingly controversial theories”, Davies said.

These include the possible involvement of the Spanish mafia, Chechen-related groups or allegations Litvinenko poisoned himself, he said.

Litvinenko's widow Marina said she found speculation that her husband committed suicide difficult to deal with, but was prepared to see all theories examined.

“I would like to know all the information about it. It doesn't matter if it was Lugovoy or the Russian state. I just would like to know the truth, because I want to stop all speculation about Sasha's (Litvinenko's) death,” she said after the hearing.

The inquest, which will take place early in 2013, could make public new details of the case including CCTV footage, medical documents and witness statements, according to Davies.

British government departments including the Atomic Weapons Establishment, the Home Office, Ministry of Defence and intelligence and security agencies had been asked to provide information, he said. - Reuters


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