The Litvinenko Inquiry – Parting shots

So, despite much publicity and expectation, the keenly-sought evidence from Dmitri Kovtun, one of the two alleged murderers of Alexander Litvinenko, did not, after all, materialise.

The Inquiry has been adjourned since the end of public hearings in March. Late in proceedings Kovtun had said he wished to provide evidence via video-link and the Chairman had set aside a few days at the end of July for his testimony.  The day before he was expected to appear Kovtun pulled out, claiming legal difficulties in Russia. Few believed his actions to be anything other than a stunt, aimed either at gaining access to Inquiry materials that would be released to any ‘core’ participant, or simply as a snub to the process. Ben Emmerson, counsel to the Litvinenko family, said Kovtun’s failure to appear was because “he could never have provided a credible answer for [the] overwhelming compelling evidence [against him]”. Regardless, the Inquiry has concluded.  The last two days were taken up with closing testimonies from the Metropolitan police Service and counsel to the Litvinenko family. Neither pulled any punches.

Richard Horwell, counsel for the police, said that Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoy are still wanted for murder, stating they have “no credible answer to the scientific evidence, and to the trail of polonium they left behind”. He poured scorn on alternative theories (largely suggested by Lugovoy and Kovtun) for Litvinenko’s poisoning by polonium-210, the established cause of death. At a press conference Kovtun held in Moscow on April 8th 2015, he claimed Litvinenko’s death was an ‘inadvertent suicide’, “new terminology for all of us, no doubt,” said Mr Horwell, “perhaps his message was lost in translation.”

He also suggested that the Russian state lay behind the assassination. Referring to the tell-tale signs of polonium-210 the pair left in hotels, restaurants, aircraft and offices, Mr Horwell said “Lugovoy and Kovtun were not the bungling assassins as some have suggested. They were simply ignorant of the true qualities of the poison they carried and we suggest that ignorance was essential for those engaged to administer it covertly”. The reason for this? “However important Lugovoy and Kovtun may think they are, to their masters, they were and are quite simply expendable.” Strong stuff.

Mr Emmerson, for the Litvinenko family, suggested Putin’s personal culpability. His award, on March 9th this year, of a medal of honour to Lugovoy for services to the motherland was a “menacing gesture of support [for his] henchman and executioner”. But, “with typical bluster and feigned indifference, the president of the Russian Federation has set about proving the very connection he is trying so hard to conceal”. Mr Emmerson described Putin as a “tinpot despot” and “morally deranged authoritarian”.

Such bluster inevitably appeared in the headlines and I worry that it may obscure the very compelling forensic evidence against the alleged assassins. The appearance of polonium-210 in the streets of London and Germany, on British Airways aircraft, in Arsenal’s Emirates stadium and in numerous hotel rooms with Lugovoy and Kovtun the common links in all cases is damning. The Inquiry’s conclusions as to the wider motive, Russian state involvement and Putin’s approval for such action will be harder to prove beyond reasonable doubt (although as an inquiry, such a legal benchmark will not be used).  It will, anyway, be immediately dismissed by Russia.  But, as I asked in the first post from the inquiry, any suggestion of Russian state involvement will present a diplomatic problem for the British government.

Sir Robert Owen will report his Inquiry’s findings before the end of the year.  Will it change anything? Russia Today is already retaliating, linking the inquiry to the EU sanctions against Russia and dismissing criticism by stating “the Litvinenko Inquiry is part of a package which presents Russia as a bad guy and puts it in the worst possible light”. But given Russia’s recent veto of a UN Security Council resolution to prosecute those responsible for shooting down Malaysian airliner MH17 over Ukraine and repeated probing of NATO defences by Russian forces, I suspect the Inquiry’s conclusions will just become part of the background to the worsening relationship between Russia and the West.

Full details and daily transcripts from the Inquiry can be seen at http://www.litvinenkoinquiry.org

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