The British government set up a judicial inquiry Tuesday into the strange death eight years ago of former KGB officer and Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, who authorities believe was slipped a lethal dose of radioactive polonium in his tea at a London hotel, possibly at the behest of the Kremlin.
The apparent assassination of Litvinenko in 2006 shocked Britain and led to a deep chill in its relationship with Russia. No one has claimed responsibility for his death.
The announcement of a new, judge-led investigation comes at another low point in bilateral ties, with the British government strongly advocating sweeping European sanctions against Moscow in the aftermath of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
British officials say the timing was coincidental; Tuesday was the last day of the parliamentary session.
An outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Litvinenko was living in Britain and had just become a British citizen when he met two Russians, one a former KGB agent, for a drink in November 2006. A few days afterward, he began vomiting and went to the hospital.
He suffered an agonizing death weeks later, apparently from the effects of radiation poisoning. Traces of polonium, a highly radioactive substance, were found in the hotel, at a sushi bar Litvinenko, 43, had visited and other locations across London.
Investigators named a Putin supporter, Andrei Lugovoi, as one of the prime suspects in Litvinenko’s death and asked that he be extradited from Russia. Moscow refused. Lugovoi is now a member of the Russian parliament.
Britain’s decision to open a public investigation led by a senior judge came after a separate official inquest into Litvinenko’s death collapsed. The judge in those proceedings said that the inquest was not equipped to deal with potential issues of national security.
British Home Secretary Theresa May said she hoped that the decision to set up the inquiry would bring comfort to Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, who has campaigned ceaselessly to get to the bottom of what happened to her husband.
“It was a very long wait to get this decision,” Marina Litvinenko told a news conference. “I do this not against – not Russia, not England. I do this for justice. I do this for truth.”
In another twist worthy of a spy novel, some say that Litvinenko was targeted for assassination because he was working with MI6, the British intelligence agency. The new inquiry will allow for some evidence to be presented behind closed doors, so the truth of any link between Litvinenko and British intelligence may never be known publicly.
In Russia, Lugovoi, one of the chief suspects, called the British government’s decision to open an inquiry “the height of cynicism,” according to the Interfax news agency.
Marina Litvinenko said she did not expect Putin to allow Lugovoi’s extradition. “I believe he never will change his mind,” she said. But she said she wanted to establish the truth of the matter.
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