Alexander Litvinenko Death ‘Courts’ Putin

Former Soviet spy Alexander Litvinenko was laid to rest on Thursday when a procession of Russian émigrés bearing his specially sealed coffin ended in London’s Highgate Cemetery. He was 43 years of age.

The life and death of Mr Litvinenko reads like a classic Cold War spy novel with all the high drama of  government conspiracies, dissidents, defections, poisonings and assassinations.

Mr Litvinenko died on November 23 after three weeks in a London hospital. It has been revealed that he was poisoned with the rare and highly radioactive isotope polonium-210 on November 1, which caused his hair to fall out and his internal organs to severely burn, peel and inevitably fail.

Experts have said that as little as three millicuries (a microscopic dose) of polonium-210 is enough to kill, and the cost of producing such a dose is about one million dollars. Mr Litvinenko’s autopsy is said to have revealed that the dose he ingested would have cost closer to $40 million to produce.

On his deathbed, Mr Litvinenko accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of ordering his murder.

Mr Litvinenko, a former KGB spy, had lived in London since being granted political asylum by the UK in 2001. He became one of the most outspoken critics of Mr Putin and had most recently accused him of ordering the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist who accused Mr Putin of human rights abuses, criminal activity and systematic oppression in Chechnya. Ms Politkovskaya also published English-language books based on her journalistic exposés. Having long feared for her life because of her work, she was shot dead outside her apartment in Moscow on October 7.

Mr Putin and the Kremlin have repeatedly denied involvement in the deaths of both Ms Politkovskaya and Mr Litvinenko.

Scotland Yard are treating Mr Litvinenko’s death as a homicide and have conducted interviews and forensic testing in London and Moscow. Their prime suspect is believed to be former Russian spy Andrei Lugovoi. However, in a very recent twist, Mr Lugovoi has reportedly been admitted to a hospital in Russia suffering the effects of radiation poisoning.

Mr Lugovoi seems to have left a trail of radiation across Europe recently. A week before Mr Litvinenko’s poisoning, Mr Lugovoi flew with a group of Russians from Moscow to London; traces of plutonium-210 were later found in the British Airways jet on which they travelled and in the five rooms they occupied at the London’s Sheraton Park Lane Hotel. On October 31, Mr Lugovoi travelled from Moscow to London with two Russian businessmen, Dmitri Kovtun and Vyacheslav Sokolenko. Traces of polonium-210 were also found on the British Airways jet in which they flew, as well as the Parkes Hotel room where Mr Lugovoi stayed, and the Emirates Stadium where he and the other two men attended a soccer match the following day. Later on November 1, Mr Lugovoi and Mr Kovtun met Mr Litvinenko at the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel in Mayfair, where Mr Litvinenko is believed to have been poisoned.

Relatively high levels of polonium-210 were detected in the Pine Bar, and all seven staff who worked that day have tested positive. Four are reportedly suffering flu-like symptoms, but health officials say they are only at risk of “a very slight increase” of health problems in the longer term. Officials have also asked that anyone who visited the bar between Oct 31-Nov 2 come forward for testing, while stressing that the substance is not harmful through skin contact, only by inhalation or ingestion.

Further linking Mr Lugovoi to the polonium-210 are traces of radiation found in the British Airways jet that carried him back to Moscow, and in the British Embassy in Moscow, where he was later questioned. He denies any involvement in Mr Litvinenko’s poisoning.

Apart from Mr Lugovoi, there are several other persons of interest to Scotland Yard.

Mr Lugovoi’s travelling companion Mr Kovtun was also questioned by British detectives in Russia before reportedly falling ill with ‘acute radiation poisoning’ and lapsing into a coma. Interfax news agency said Mr Kovtun suffered “damage to his vital organs, in particular his liver and kidneys, caused by radioactive nuclides”. Yet this has been disputed by Andrei Romashov, a lawyer for Lugovoi and a former officer of the Federal Protection Service (the agency that succeeded the KGB). He told the Russian News and Information Agency Novosti, “I have just clarified the facts. This can only be called a provocation. Kovtun’s condition is satisfactory.”

British Police also want to further question ‘Third Man’ Vyacheslav Sokolenko, who maintains that he only traveled to London with the other two men to attend the soccer match at Emirates Stadium on November 1. He stayed at the Millennium Hotel but says he only briefly greeted Mr Litvinenko, Mr Lugovoi and Mr Kovtun in the Pine Bar – he shook hands with Mr Litvinenko, but did not join the group.

Before his fateful meeting at the Pine Bar, Mr Litvinenko also met with Italian security consultant Mario Scaramella for lunch at the Itsu sushi restaurant in Piccadilly. Mr Scaramella had arranged the meeting to warn Mr Litvinenko that his life was in danger, based on information he had received via email. Mr Scaramella later suffered a brief illness and was admitted to hospital, where he was found to have ingested “significant amounts” of polonium-210. His condition improved and he has been released. Meanwhile, no traces of the substance have been detected in either the Itsu restaurant’s staff or premises.

Vladimir Simonov, a political commentator for the Russian News and Information Agency Novosti has questioned the murder/assassination theory in the Litvinenko poisoning. He argues that $40 million is high for any professional hit, and that Mr Litvinenko posed no real threat to the Russian government. Moreover, polonium-210 leaves an easily detectable radioactive trail that leads back to operatives and the original source.

Mr Simonov believes Mr Litvinenko may have been smuggling polonium-210 because he “badly needed money”, “made a bit on the side by smuggling toxic isotopes”, and “wanted to earn from the transaction”. Mr Simonov also states that on the day of his poisoning, Mr Litvinenko visited Boris Berezovsky, an exiled Russian businessman and “key wheeler and dealer of the Yeltsin era”, and left traces of the radioactive isotope in Mr Berezovsky’s office.

Apart from accidental self-contamination, Mr Simonov further suggests that Mr Litvinenko may have been murdered by Mr Berezovsky because he “knew too much” about fraud charges pending in Russia and “posed a threat to the exiled oligarch”. He said a memorandum of cooperation between Russia’s Deputy Prosecutor General and Scotland Yard does not bode well for Mr Berezovsky, who may have figured that “a dead acquaintance is better than a living friend who talks too much”.

In an alternative scenario, Mr Simonov cites a recent television broadcast in Russia in which Mr Litvinenko was linked with “an underground London laboratory where a dirty nuclear bomb was being made for Chechen terrorists”. He also states that: (1) “One of Litvinenko’s close friends was Akhmed Zakayev, the former commander of Chechen fighters, whom Russian prosecutors want to see in Moscow in connection with cases of murder and torture in Chechnya”; and (2) “About two years ago, Berezovsky told the world that Chechen separatists had acquired a portable nuclear bomb and lacked only one minor detail. That “minor detail” could be polonium-210.”

The ongoing wave of mysterious poisonings, wildly conflicting theories, and radiation trail between Moscow and London all pose enormous challenges to police trying to solve the Litvinenko case.

Nevertheless, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has vowed that those responsible for the London poisonings will be found and brought to justice. Although Mr Putin has stated that his government will co-operate with British investigators, his prosecutor general Yuri Chaika insists that Russia will refuse any requests to extradite suspects. If incriminating evidence is found against them, they will be tried in their own country. The Russian government has also announced that it will conduct its own investigation into the poisonings.

The high drama and intrigue surrounding the Litvinenko case looks set to rival that of the most acclaimed Cold War spy novels. And the plot is only beginning to unfold in this mysterious and ultimately tragic tale of the spy who came in from the cold.


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