The former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko may have survived a previous poisoning attempt before a lethal dose of polonium was slipped into his tea at a London hotel, a long-awaited judicial inquiry into his death was told Tuesday.
The former KGB officer, an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was living in Britain and doing consultancy work for the British intelligence service MI-6 when he met two Russians for a drink at the Millennium Hotel in November 2006. Weeks later, he suffered an agonizing death, apparently from the effects of radiation poisoning.
The strange case soured relations between Britain and Russia for years. On his deathbed, Litvinenko claimed that he had been poisoned on Putin's orders.
Russia has denied the claim and has refused to extradite the two men identified by Britain as the prime suspects, Dmitry Kovtun and former KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi. They have been invited to give evidence to the inquiry via video link from Russia.
On the opening day of the inquiry into Litvinenko's death, lawyer Robin Tam said evidence would be heard that the Russian dissident "was poisoned with polonium not once, but twice."
Litvinenko had complained of feeling ill around the time of another meeting with Kovtun and Lugovoi at a security company in mid-October, a couple of weeks before he was hospitalized, Tam said, according to British news reports. Tam is counsel to the inquiry.
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 the earlier proceedings said that the inquest was not equipped to deal with potential issues of national security.
Ben Emmerson, a lawyer representing Litvinenko's family at the inquiry, said that he was killed for trying to expose Putin's "mafia state."
"He had provided information to officials in this country, in Italy and in Spain who were investigating Russian organized crime syndicates and their relationship to the Kremlin," Emmerson was quoted as saying Tuesday by Britain's Telegraph newspaper. "And he had exposed a number of crimes committed or authorized by Mr. Putin personally."
"He had to be eliminated – not because he was an enemy of the Russian state itself or an enemy of the Russian people – but because he had become an enemy of the close-knit group of criminals who surround Vladimir Putin and keep his corrupt regime in power."