European court rules Russia responsible for killing of defector Litvinenko

Former KGB agent died in London in 2006 after drinking tea laced with radioactive material; UK charging 3rd suspect in 2018 nerve agent attack on ex-Russian agent Sergei Skripal

In this May 10, 2002, file photo former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko is photographed at his home in London. (AP Photo/Alistair Fuller)
In this May 10, 2002, file photo former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko is photographed at his home in London. (AP Photo/Alistair Fuller)

LONDON — The European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday backed the conclusion of a British inquiry that Russia was responsible for the killing of Alexander Litvinenko, who died in London in 2006 after drinking tea laced with a radioactive material.

A former agent for the KGB and the post-Soviet successor agency FSB, Litvinenko defected from Russia in 2000 and fled to London. While in Britain, Litvinenko became involved in exposing corruption and links to organized crime in the Russian intelligence service.

He fell violently ill on November 1, 2006, after drinking tea with two Russian men at a London hotel, and spent three weeks in the hospital before he died. His tea was found to have been laced with radioactive polonium-210.

The British inquiry concluded in early 2016 that Russian agents Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun had killed Litvinenko, and that Russian President Vladimir Putin had “probably approved” the operation.

Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, took the case to the Strasbourg-based court, vowing to get justice for her husband.

The European court, which is not a body of the European Union, backed the British conclusion in its verdict on Tuesday but rejected Marina Litvinenko’s claim for “punitive” damages.

“The Court found in particular that there was a strong prima facie case that, in poisoning Mr. Litvinenko, Mr. Lugovoi and Mr. Kovtun had been acting as agents of the Russian State,” it said.

A file photo taken on September 14, 2004, shows Alexander Litvinenko (L), a former Russian intelligence agent, speaking at a press conference in London. (AFP PHOTO / MARTIN HAYHOW)

It also noted that the Russian government had “failed to provide any other satisfactory and convincing explanation of the events or counter the findings of the UK inquiry.”

Both Lugovoi and Kovtun deny any involvement in the killing.

Marina Litvinenko welcomed the court’s ruling that the Russian state was responsible for her husband’s death and said it highlighted the “undemocratic regime” in Moscow.

“This case helps other people not give up and try to change what might happen in Russia, in one day Russia become a better country to everybody” she told Sky News.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov brushed aside the European court’s verdict.

“We’re not ready to take such rulings on board,” he told reporters.

Also Tuesday, British police said they were charging a third Russian suspect in a 2018 nerve agent attack on a former Russian agent in England.

Scotland Yard said prosecutors believe there is sufficient evidence to charge Denis Sergeev, who went by the alias “Sergey Fedotov,” with conspiracy to murder, attempted murder, possessing and using a chemical weapon, and causing grievous bodily harm.

Former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were targeted in a nerve agent attack in March 2018 in the English city of Salisbury that British authorities said had almost certainly approved been “at a senior level of the Russian state.” Moscow has vehemently denied the allegations.

The Skripals survived, but the attack later claimed the life of a British woman and left a man and a police officer seriously ill.

Police previously charged two other Russian military intelligence agents, known by their aliases Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, saying they traveled to the UK for the poisoning operation then flew back to Moscow. Putin has claimed the suspects were civilians, and the two suspects later appeared on Russian television claiming they had visited Salisbury as tourists.

Former Russian military intelligence colonel Sergei Skripal attends a hearing at the Moscow District Military Court in Moscow on August 9, 2006. (AFP/Kommersant Photo/Yuri Senatorov)

Police said Tuesday they have evidence that the third suspect, Sergeev, was also a member of the Russian military intelligence service known as the GRU.

Arrest warrants have been issued for all three men. Police said they will apply for Interpol notices for Fedotov on Tuesday, but British prosecutors said they will not apply to Russia for Sergeev’s extradition because the Russian constitution does not permit extradition of its own nationals.

Russia’s Defense Ministry, which the GRU is part of, did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Dean Haydon, a senior counter-terrorism officer who has been leading the investigation, said the case has been one of the most complex ever undertaken by the counter-terror team. He appealed for anyone who had seen the three men in the UK in March 2018 to come forward.

Investigators have pieced together evidence suggesting that all three suspects “previously worked with each other and on behalf of the Russian state as part of operations carried out outside of Russia,” Haydon said.

“All three of them are dangerous individuals,” he added. “They have tried to murder people here in the UK and they have also brought an extremely dangerous chemical weapon into the UK by means unknown.”

Online investigative website Bellingcat previously reported that Sergeev was suspected of involvement in the poisoning of an arms manufacturer, his son and a factory manager in Bulgaria in 2015.

Skripal, a Russian military intelligence officer turned double agent for Britain, and his daughter Yulia, who was visiting him, spent weeks in critical condition after the attack.

Three months later, two local residents who apparently picked up a discarded perfume vial that contained the nerve agent fell ill. One recovered, but the other died. A police officer who was investigating the case also fell ill; he recovered but later quit the force.

The case ignited a diplomatic confrontation in which hundreds of envoys were expelled by both Russia and Western nations.

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