The Litvinenko Inquiry that started today in London’s Royal Courts of Justice is expected to take nine weeks and be complete before Easter. There will be many who will wish it could take longer. Sir Robert Owen, Chairman of the inquiry, said he will “make public the final conclusion on the issue of Russian state responsibility” for the death of Mr Litvinenko. That will cause a big headache for the British government.
If the report blames Russia (and, by implication, Vladimir Putin) Britain will have to make a diplomatic stand against the state-sponsored murder on British soil of a British citizen (Mr Litvinenko was granted British citizenship the month before his death). But any other conclusion will see Britain accused of acquiescing to Russian pressure, given the strength of public feeling and the call from the Crown Prosecution Service for Andrei Lugovoy and Dimitri Kovtun, Russian nationals connected to state security agencies, to be tried for murder. Not so Happy Easter, Mr Cameron.
But all that is for the future. Today heard the opening remarks and statements from the Chairman, Counsel to the Inquiry (Robin Tam QC), Counsel for Mr Litvinenko’s wife and son, Marina and Anatoly (Ben Emmerson QC), Counsel for the Home Secretary (Neil Garnham QC) and Counsel for Britain’s Atomic Weapons Establishment (David Evans QC). Given that the Foreign Affairs Select Committee described the murder as “a miniature nuclear attack on the streets of London,” they were choosing their words carefully.
The inquiry nearly didn’t happen, for two reasons. First, when Mr Litvinenko fell ill and was admitted to Barnet General Hospital on November 3rd 2006, it was unclear what was wrong with him. As radiation sickness became evident and he was transferred to University College Hospital, tests were inconclusive as to the exact nature of his illness. Doctors decided to test for alpha radiation poisoning, hitherto considered too remote a possibility, on a whim on November 21st, two days before Mr Litvinenko died. Notwithstanding that this proved to be a most insightful hunch, the doctors were correct – the Atomic Weapons Establishment confirmed that Mr Litvinenko’s suffering was caused by the radioactive element polonium-210. They further discovered that he was displaying evidence (in hair samples) of having suffered an earlier exposure sometime around the middle of October 2006. The cause of death – acute radiation syndrome through the ingestion of polonium-210 – may have easily gone undiscovered and an inquest returned an open verdict, in which case there would have been no need for an inquiry
The second reason the inquiry almost didn’t come about was because of a spat between the British Foreign and Home Secretaries and Sir Robert Owen (assistant deputy coroner to the original inquest and now Chairman of the inquiry). Sir Robert decided, in his coroner’s capacity at the inquest into Mr Litvinenko’s death, to include the issue of the culpability of the Russian state. This would have meant sensitive information being publicly disclosed by Britain’s intelligence agencies and Atomic Weapons Establishment; a move the Foreign Secretary objected to in open session. As closed hearings (where such material can be presented) are not permissible in an inquest, the coroner had to either discount Russian state involvement as a possibility to be explored or press for an inquiry. After much wrangling the Home Secretary decided in July last year to allow an inquiry to take place. Many think Russia’s action in Crimea and the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH-17 by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine helped clarify matters for the Home Secretary.
So, we’re off, at an inquiry, not an inquest, and with the Chairman and legal representatives in suits, not wigs and gowns, as this is not a court of law and no judgement is being handed down. Witnesses, some of whom will give evidence without the public or media present, will be called from tomorrow, starting with the anonymous ‘Scientist A1’ who will explain polonium-210; what it is, how it is produced; how it can get into the human body; what it does when it gets there, and so on. I will also explain the British Government’s policy of Neither Confirm Nor Deny, or NCND in the jargon, relating to release of material from the intelligence agencies.
Mr Emmerson, counsel to Marina and Anatoly Litvinenko, said the trail of polonium-210 led from London to the doors of the Kremlin “like the trail of breadcrumbs left by Hansel and Gretel”. It was a messy business, he said, but “sunlight is the best disinfectant”. The sunlight of this inquiry is long overdue.
More to follow…