A Radioactive Case

Britain Should Go Public With The Evidence in the Litvinenko Poisoning

“The British government should make known the evidence supporting its charge against Lugovoy. Equally important, it should make known whatever evidence exists regarding the authorization and organization of Litvinenko’s murder.”

It wasn’t surprising that Moscow rejected the British government’s request to extradite Andrei Lugovoy, the Russian businessman and former KGB officer charged with murdering Alexander Litvinenko in London in November. After all, Article 61 of the Russian constitution prohibits the extradition of any citizen, and the Russian government said months ago that it wouldn’t extradite Lugovoy or anyone else accused in the case. But British actions to date do not match the seriousness of this matter.

With good reason, the British government rejected Russia’s suggestion that it turn over its evidence to Russian prosecutors. Instead, Foreign Secretary David Miliband announced Monday the expulsion of four Russian diplomats and restrictions on visas to Russian officials. Russia reciprocated yesterday, expelling four British diplomats and announcing it would stop issuing visas to British officials or seeking British visas for Russian diplomats.

In a bizarre development that may explain why the British resorted to the Cold War tactic of diplomatic expulsions, police confirmed yesterday that a Russian man was arrested in London last month on suspicion of conspiracy to murder Boris Berezovsky, a Yeltsin-era oligarch who was granted asylum by Britain but is wanted in Moscow on fraud charges. Berezovsky has provided financial assistance to opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin, including to Litvinenko. After being questioned for two days, the man was released to the immigration service and deported.

Britain’s actions signal official displeasure with Russia. But the expulsions and visa suspensions constitute a tepid response to the murder of a British citizen, and they don’t shed any light on the crime itself. The British government should make known the evidence supporting its charge against Lugovoy. Equally important, it should make known whatever evidence exists regarding the authorization and organization of Litvinenko’s murder.

Even before Lugovoy was charged, news accounts suggested there was considerable evidence implicating him and perhaps others in the crime. Litvinenko was poisoned Nov. 1 with polonium-210. Investigators retracing Litvinenko’s itinerary that day reportedly found traces of polonium radiation in the bar of a London hotel where he met with Lugovoy and his business partner Dmitry Kovtun, as well as on a teapot and teacup there.

Traces were also reportedly found at another London hotel where Lugovoy and Kovtun stayed during a visit two weeks earlier; a restaurant where Lugovoy had lunch with Litvinenko during that visit; a third hotel, where Lugovoy stayed and met with Litvinenko on a separate visit a week before the November meeting; two British Airways planes used on the London-Moscow route, which Lugovoy traveled several times in October; and at other locations, including Hamburg, where Kovtun stopped for several days before traveling to London for the Nov. 1 meeting.

There is ample reason to suspect that Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, was involved. Recall that Litvinenko, a former officer in the KGB and FSB who was granted asylum by Britain in 2000, was a fierce critic of both the FSB and Putin. Among other things, he publicly claimed that Putin was responsible for the murder last October of Anna Politkovskaya, a crusading journalist and opponent of both Putin and the war in Chechnya.

Legislation the Russian parliament passed last July expanded the definition of prohibited “extremist activity” to include public slander of the president and other government officials. One of the FSB directorates is responsible for fighting political extremism. The legislation also authorized the security services to fight extremist activity beyond Russia’s border.

Litvinenko, of course, was famously poisoned with an exceptionally rare radioactive isotope that can be produced only at a nuclear facility. More than 95 percent of the world’s polonium comes from the Avangard plant, part of the large Russian nuclear complex outside the city of Sarov. It is inconceivable that anyone could have obtained the amount of polonium used to poison Litvinenko except through official channels.

Despite the suspicion of FSB involvement, no hard evidence has yet been produced. The measures taken by the British government to signal its displeasure with Moscow’s refusal to extradite Lugovoy suggest it may have evidence the Russian government was involved, directly or indirectly, in the murder.

It no doubt would be inconvenient for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s new government to release the evidence in the case. It has inherited delicate negotiations with Russia involving oil and gas exploration by British companies, Iran’s nuclear program, Kosovo and many other issues. And there’s a great deal of trade, investment and other financial activity between the two countries. Perhaps that’s why Britain has resorted to such symbolic gestures.

Nevertheless, if there is evidence demonstrating Lugovoy’s involvement in Litvinenko’s murder and, more important, that of the Russian government, now is the time to make it known.

Washington Post July 20, 2007

By David R. Cameron

The writer is a professor of political science at Yale University.

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