Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Litvinenko enquiry moves to Russia

The Russian branch of Interpol has joined the enquiry into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. The ex-Russian spy died of suspected polonium-210 poisoning in a London hospital last month. Now Interpol's Moscow office chief Timur Lakhonin said Interpol was providing "speedy exchange of information" between police in Britain, Russia and Germany. Litvinenko himself believed he was poisoned by the Russian government, but the Kremlin has dismissed these suggestions. Now British investigators have travelled to Russia to interview those who met Litvinenko in a London hotel on 1 November, the day he fell ill.

The two key interviewees that British police are interested in are Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun. The two men have other things in common besides meeting Litvinenko on that fateful day. Both men both denied involvement in the crime, both are ex-KGB operatives and both have themselves now come down with radiation sickness. Police interviewed Lugovoi, who is now a businessmen, in a Moscow hospital where he was undergoing medical checks after traces of polonium-210 were found in his body. Then a day later, they interviewed Kovtun who was also hospitalised with radiation poisoning. German detectives are also interested in Kovtun on suspicion of plutonium smuggling into Germany in October. His ex-wife and children in Hamburg are also undergoing tests for possible radiation contamination.

Alexander Valterovich Litvinenko was born in 1962 in the south-western city of Voronezh. After high school he enrolled in the Soviet Army as a private. He rapidly rose through the ranks and graduated from the Interior Forces Military Academy as a lieutenant-colonel. He joined the KGB in 1988. He was soon assigned to a unit which worked closely with Moscow’s police to fight organised crime. In 1991, the KGB was rebadged to the FSB in the newly independent Russian federation. But not much else had changed; the last head of the KGB Sergey Golovko was also the first head of the FSB.

Litvinenko continued to climb the ladder of the new organisation. He rose to become deputy head of a top-secret section responsible for investigating corruption within the service. Later Litvinenko claimed that during this period his superiors ordered him to kill Boris Berezovsky, the billionaire friend of President Yeltsin who was then Secretary of the Security Council. His stellar career came to an abrupt end in 1998. He went public with the Berezovsky claims. The then FSB boss Vladimir Putin was outraged and immediately sacked Litvinenko.

Litvinenko spent the next two years in and out of prison on cooked-up charges that were never proven. After a third arrest in 2000 on charges of faking evidence, a passport-less Litvinenko fled the country. He made it to Turkey where his wife and son joined him. In November that year, the family claimed political asylum in Britain. Here the family was supported by fellow exile Berezovsky and Litvinenko became an open and outspoken of his ex-boss Putin. Putin was now an international player having come from nowhere to claim a stunning victory in the Russian presidential election in 2000. In 2002, Litvinenko published a book “Blowing up Russia: Terror from Within” in which he claimed the FSB, not Chechen separatists, were responsible for the Russian apartment block bombings in 1999 that killed more than 300 people. Russia tried and convicted him in absentia.

Litvinenko continued to be a media-friendly embarrassing thorn in the side of the Russian administration. In 2003 he told Australian SBS TV program Dateline two of the Moscow theatre terrorists were FSB agents. He claimed “FSB agents among Chechens organised the whole thing on FSB orders, and those agents were released." He claimed that the others were all killed to conceal FSB involvement. Then in 2005, Litvinenko told Polish TV the FSB trained the prominent Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Dagestan in the 1990s.

Litvinenko sustained his attack on Putin in 2006. In July he accused him of being a paedophile and claimed a Russian newspaper editor died in aeroplane crash under suspicious circumstances just a week after trying to publishing an article on the subject. His latest project was the murder of high-profile vociferous Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya. Politkovskaya was shot dead outside her home on 8 October. Litvinenko was aware of the threat in advance and he advised Politkovskaya to leave the country immediately. On October 19 Litvinenko was in the audience at a meeting at the Frontline Club for journalists. When the discussion turned to Politkovskaya’s murder 12 days earlier, he openly blamed the Russian government.

On 1 November, he had two notable meetings. Firstly, he had lunch at a sushi restaurant in Piccadilly with a shadowy Italian named Mario Scaramella. Scaramella claimed to have information about the killing of Politkovskaya. He was an investigator for an Italian parliamentary commission to investigate alleged KGB ties to Italian political figures. Then at 4pm he met Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun in a Mayfair hotel for a business meeting. Lugovoi and Kovtun were in London to attend the Champions League game between Arsenal and CSKA Moscow. They arranged to meet again the following day but Litvinenko rang Lugovoi in the morning to say he was ill and wouldn’t attend. Shortly afterwards Litvinenko checked into hospital.

Doctors were initially baffled by the case. Litvinenko’s combination of symptoms including dehydration, heart complications and hair loss led doctors to suspect the heavy metal thallium. But this was ruled out after tests. His condition steadily deteriorated and he died on 23 November with the official cause still unknown. Before he died, Litvinenko had spoken at length to detectives and media and was forthright in his belief that his poisoning was caused by his Russian enemies in the FSB. One day after his death, his autopsy revealed traces of polonium-210, one of the most toxic substances on Earth. It is lethal in tiny doses but also extremely expensive to procure, found only in uranium ores.

The same day his friend Alex Goldfarb issued a posthumous statement on his behalf. Goldfarb, who is also a lawyer for Berezovsky, claimed Litvinenko dictated the letter to him two days before he died. The letter directly accuses Putin of his murder and the final paragraph reads “You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life. May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me but to beloved Russia and its people.” Putin disputed the veracity of the note claiming it was concocted by Goldfarb and others.

Since then the polonium links have spread. On 1 December, Mario Scaramella, already under British police guard, was taken to hospital with traces of the substance. His room at the Ashdown Park Hotel in Sussex has been sealed off due to possible contamination. The British Health Protection Agency also found “barely detectable” quantities at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium where the two Russians Lugovoi and Kovtun attended a game two days after the incident. Seven staff working at the Millennium Hotel bar on the day of Litvinenko's visit have also been contaminated with polonium-210. Meanwhile police are seeking out six Irish people who stayed in the hotel at the time. Traces were found in a fourth-floor room at the hotel, as well as on a cup from the hotel bar.

Tony Blair promised "no diplomatic or political barrier" would be allowed to hamper an investigation into Litvinenko’s death. He said the case was very serious and he would discuss it with Russian President Vladimir Putin in person if necessary. However the allegations surrounding the death have the potential to cause a serious rift between Britain and Russia. Moscow has agreed to help the investigation but at a hefty price. Prosecutor-General Yuri Chaika told the nine British counter-terrorism detectives they would not be allowed to question senior officers of the FSB and said that any trial of Russian suspects must happen in Russia. They have also demanded Britain extradite Berezovsky and Chechen separatist leader Akhmed Zakayev. Britain has yet to respond, but it is possible that a compromise might see FSB officers go to London in exchange for the prizes Moscow wants.

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