UK Announces Public Inquiry into Russian Spy’s Poisoning

Originally published on July 25, 2014, at

Blaming Russia for the deaths of the 298 passengers aboard Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, including 10 passengers from the UK, the British government has announced a public inquiry into poisoned former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko. Seeking justice for her husband’s murder, Marina Litvinenko has met resistance from the British government until recent actions in the Ukraine and deteriorating diplomatic relations with Russia.

While investigating the assassination of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, former FSB agent Litvinenko met with three former KGB officers at the Millennium Hotel in London on November 1, 2006. Forensic evidence has revealed Litvinenko’s teacup had been poisoned with the radioactive isotope, polonium-210. Enduring intense agony, Litvinenko entered a hospital and eventually died of heart failure 22 days later.

Before his death, Litvinenko revealed the names of his killers: Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, the former KGB officers who had tea with him, and Vladimir Putin, the man who had ordered his execution.

In 1988, Litvinenko entered the KGB as a counter-intelligence officer. When the KGB disbanded and later reformed into the FSB, he was assigned to investigating organized crime in Moscow. After uncovering rampant police corruption tied to the Russian mafia and international drug trafficking, Litvinenko suspiciously received orders to assassinate an oligarch named Boris Berezovsky.

Instead of killing their target, Litvinenko and his team warned Berezovsky of the plot against him. After complaining to the Prosecutor-General, Litvinenko and his men received suspensions from the FSB. In 1998, Litvinenko and his fellow officers held a press conference revealing several FSB plots against perceived political opponents.

The FSB fired Litvinenko and arrested him for exceeding his authority. Acquitted in 1999, he was re-arrested again until the charges were dismissed in 2000. Facing a third arrest, Litvinenko secretly fled his homeland and eventually ended up with his wife in London seeking political asylum.

In 2001, Litvinenko wrote “Blowing Up Russia” and accused the FSB of carrying out the apartment bombings that left 293 dead while blaming Chechen rebels for the attacks. In his book, Litvinenko names the FSB officers responsible for the bombings and details how the bombs were planted to justify a second war with Chechnya. He also wrote that Vladimir Putin was a pedophile who had covered up drug trafficking and rare metal smuggling before his promotion to Director of the FSB.

On October 7, 2006, investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya was shot to death in her apartment building in Moscow. She had been writing a book exposing Putin’s political corruption and Chechen war crimes committed by the FSB. As a coincidence or a message, October 7 is President Putin’s birthday.

Investigating the murder of his friend, Litvinenko reached out to his old KGB contacts. Meeting with former KGB officers Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, he voiced concerns that Putin had been responsible for her assassination. They agreed to meet again at the Millennium Hotel on November 1.

At the ill-fated meeting, they introduced Litvinenko to a third former KGB agent, Vyacheslav Sokolenko. Contaminated with polonium-210, Litvinenko’s teacup was used to administer the poison. After falling violently ill, Litvinenko entered a hospital where doctors eventually diagnosed him with radiation sickness.

Polonium-210 is an extremely rare radioactive isotope made in nuclear reactors. 97% of the production of polonium-210 occurs within Russia. Because of its scarceness, doctors do not test for it as a possible poison and is therefore much more difficult to detect.

German investigators found traces of polonium-210 at Kovtun’s former mother-in-law’s house. He slept on her couch before flying to London to meet with Litvinenko. They also found traces of the radioactive isotope in his car.

After detecting no radiation on the bus ticket Litvinenko purchased to arrive at the meeting, British investigators checked the hotel discovering large traces on his teacup.

Kovtun and Lugovoi fled to Russia and received treatment for radiation poisoning. They have denied murdering Litvinenko even though the radiation trail leads directly to them. Russia’s refusal to extradite the murder suspects has strained diplomatic relations with the UK. Instead of facing charges in a Russian court, Lugovoi has received immunity from prosecution by becoming a member of the State Duma.

Walter Litvinenko remembered his son repeating the names of his assassins in the final days before his death: “Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun poisoned me, I trusted them, and they deceived me.”

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