Putin Probably Approved’ Litvinenko Poisoning British Inquiry Says

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Alexander V. Litvinenko at a London hospital in 2006, shortly before he died from ingesting green tea laced with polonium 210.
LONDON — A high-profile British inquiry into the poisoning of Alexander V. Litvinenko, a former K.G.B. officer turned critic of the Kremlin, concluded in a report released on Thursday that his murder “was probably approved” by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and the head of the country’s spy service.
The finding by Robert Owen, a retired High Court judge, in a 328-page report represented by far the most damning official link between Mr. Litvinenko’s death on Nov. 23, 2006, and the highest levels of the Kremlin.

The death of Mr. Litvinenko, a whistle-blower who had fought corruption in Moscow’s security services, plunged relations between Britain and Russia into a chill reminiscent of the Cold War. But British officials suggested they would seek to safeguard the country’s broader relationship with Moscow, even as both sides engaged in verbal sparring.

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Judge Owen did not provide any direct evidence linking Mr. Putin or any other high-level Russian officials to the killing, and he acknowledged that he had based his findings on “strong circumstantial evidence of Russian state responsibility.” That included the likely origin of the polonium that was used to poison Mr. Litvinenko being a Russian reactor, and the fact that there were “powerful motives for organizations and individuals within the Russian state to take action” against him.
“We regret that the strictly criminal case has been politicized and has darkened the general atmosphere of bilateral relations,” said Maria Zakharova, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman in Moscow, the news agency Interfax reported. “Certainly, we need some time to thoroughly analyze the contents of this document, after which we will issue our detailed review.”

Speaking after the release of the report, Mr. Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, called for the expulsion of Russian intelligence officers from London and the imposition of targeted economic sanctions against individuals including Mr. Putin and his former spy chief, Nikolai Patrushev.

Sitting beside her at a news conference, Ms. Litvinenko’s lawyer, Ben Emmerson, said it would be “craven” of Prime Minister David Cameron to fail to respond to what he called “nuclear terrorism” on the streets of London.
In Parliament, the home secretary, Theresa May, called Mr. Litvinenko’s death “a blatant and unacceptable breach of the most fundamental tenets of international law and civilized behavior,” while also noting that Russia’s apparent role “does not come as a surprise.”

She said that the British assets of the two Russian men suspected in the killing, Andrei K. Lugovoi and Dmitri V. Kovtun, would be frozen and that the Russian ambassador would be summoned to be told of Britain’s response.

Mr. Litvinenko died 22 days after ingesting green tea from a pot laced with polonium 210 — a rare and highly toxic isotope — in the company of Mr. Lugovoi and Mr. Kovtun. He was 43. The three men had met in the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel in London.
Mr. Lugovoi, now a member of Parliament in Russia and the recipient of a medal from Mr. Putin, said the accusation that he murdered Mr. Litvinenko was “absurd,” Interfax reported, and a Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry S. Peskov, said the Litvinenko case “is not among the topics that interest us.”

The inquiry, which began almost exactly one year ago, was called after dogged efforts by Ms. Litvinenko to press for a full accounting of her husband’s death. The British police have accused Mr. Lugovoi and Mr. Kovtun of murder, charges they deny, and Russia has refused to extradite them, saying such a move is banned by the Constitution.

From the beginning, the killing also raised questions in London about the potential involvement of Mr. Putin and Mr. Patrushev, the head of the F.S.B., the domestic successor to the K.G.B., at the time of Mr. Litvinenko’s death.
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Mr. Litvinenko, who had denounced Mr. Putin and accused him of murder himself in a deathbed statement, had identified the sites in interviews with British detectives as he lay in a hospital in central London.

The most striking readings came from the Millennium Hotel, close to the United States Embassy, where investigators retrieved a “mangled clump of debris” with high concentrations of polonium from the waste pipe under the wash basin of a bedroom Mr. Kovtun used.

“The reason that evidence is so pivotal, of course, is because Dmitri Kovtun stayed in that room on the very day that he and Mr. Lugovoi administered the fatal dose of polonium some floors below in the Pine Bar of the same hotel,” Mr. Emmerson said on the final day of hearings on July 31, 2015, before Judge Owen began composing the report.
Mr. Litvinenko, his wife and their son, Anatoly, had lived in Britain since fleeing Russia in 2000 and had secured British citizenship weeks before he died. Ms. Litvinenko has told the inquiry that her husband worked as an agent of the British MI6 spy service.

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Testimony at the inquiry suggested that Mr. Litvinenko was seeking to trace links between Mr. Putin, his entourage and organized crime groups. He was planning to travel to Spain to meet with investigators there when he was poisoned.

Judge Owen on Thursday listed various possible motivations for why the Russians wanted to kill Mr. Litvinenko, including a belief among Russian security officials that he had betrayed the F.S.B. during his time working for the organization as an investigator in Moscow and had begun to work for British intelligence after he fled in 2000.

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He was also a close associate of prominent opponents of the Kremlin based in London, including Boris Berezovsky, a former oligarch and enemy of Mr. Putin’s who died in 2013, the report said.

“Finally, there was undoubtedly a personal dimension to the antagonism between Mr. Litvinenko on one hand and President Putin on the other,” the report said.

It excluded any role in the poisoning by the British security services, organized crime gangs, Mr. Berezovsky or other associates of Mr. Litvinenko.
Initially, Judge Owen, who had the power to summon witnesses, had been planning to hold an inquest, but such inquiries are not permitted to hear secret evidence. To meet the government’s demand for some details to be heard behind closed doors, Judge Owen, and Ms. Litvinenko, pressed for a public inquiry able to hold closed sessions.

The government reluctantly agreed and imposed broad restrictions on evidence that could be heard in public. The secret testimony was not released in the report, although Judge Owen said in a separate statement that his “findings of fact” were “based on the entirety of the evidence that I have seen and heard, both open and closed.”

Despite the tensions between London and Moscow that were caused by his death, ties gradually improved as Prime Minister David Cameron, like other Western leaders, sought Mr. Putin’s support on key issues such as the civil war in Syria and the Iranian nuclear program.

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In recent days, news reports have indicated that British diplomats were eager to maintain those ties with the Kremlin, whatever the outcome of Judge Owen’s inquiry.

In recent months, Russia’s international standing has begun to recover from the global criticism that it received after its annexation of Crimea and other actions in Ukraine in 2014.

That has partly resulted from the desire of Western nations to enlist Moscow in the campaign against the Islamic State and in the effort to prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons. Russian airplanes are now attacking targets in Syria, although principally hitting rebel groups backed by the United States. And as part of the recently concluded agreement on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Iran has shipped about 25,000 pounds of low-enriched uranium to Russia.
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