Russia pays UK law firm for ‘help’ in inquiry over murder of Kremlin critic
The Russian taxpayer is to foot the bill for legal services in the UK regarding the murder of Kremlin whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko which the British police is convinced was carried out with the involvement of the Russian state. There is no indication as to what the services provided actually entail.
The deal was probably not supposed to be made public, and has only come to the surface after RBC.ru journalists studied public procurement tender documentation. This reveals that Russia will pay the UK law firm Harbottle & Lewis £2 million (158 million roubles). The money is in fees for legal consultation provided to Russia’s Investigative Committee regarding the UK Crown Coroner’s Inquiry into Litvinenko’s murder in 2006. The payments agreed are from 2013 through 2016, with over half (£1, 171 million) due in 2016.
RBC spoke with Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s former lawyer Vadim Klyuvgant who thought the amount realistic, but was angered by the lack of transparency over the use of public funding for unspecified services. He also asks why a foreign firm is providing services when the Investigative Committee has its own – publically funded – resources. Pavel Chikov, from the Agora Human Rights Organization pointed out that the governments of various countries employ lawyers to represent their interests in foreign courts. He has no issue with the Litvinenko case touching on Russia’s interests, but questions whether public funding is warranted, as well as the lack of openness.
According to the RBC.ru report, the Investigative Committee itself applied for status as interested party in the inquiry. It asserted that this was because it was responsible in Russia for carrying out an investigation into the circumstances of Litvinenko’s death. This, however, conflicts with an earlier English report which cites a letter from the Investigative Committee [ICRF] read out at an initial hearing in the inquiry. That stated that the ICRF would not be taking place as it was not willing to “participate in a process where it appears that a considerable amount of evidence will be heard in closed session”.
The position is an interesting one given that the two main suspects are refusing to leave Russia and Kovtun’s initial agreement to answer questions by Skype was later withdrawn. It became clear from the inquiry how little help Scotland Yard has received from Russia in even investigating the case, let alone bringing charges against the two suspects.
The stance taken by ICRF is also in contrast to that seen in recent high-profile cases including the trial of Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov and civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko. There the men’s lawyers had been prohibited from revealing any details of the case throughout the 15 months that the men were held in custody after being taken illegally from Crimea to Russia. This meant that it was only after the first week of the hearings in July that the authoritative Memorial Society declared both men political prisoners. During that trial three supposed witnesses and their testimony remained secret. (more details at: Sentsov-Kolchenko Case – “An Absolutely Stalinist Trial”
Alexander Litvinenko was a former KGB, then FSB agent, who fled to the UK in 2000 and received political asylum after attempts to prosecute him over allegations he made about an FSB plot to murder the oligarch and arch enemy of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Boris Berezovsky. He apparently worked for the British Security Service. He was particularly well-known for a book he wrote together with Yury Felshtinsky, entitled Blowing up Russia: Terror from within. The book accuses Russia’s FSB of having organized the Russian apartment block bombings in Moscow, Buynaksk and Volgodonsk in September 1999 which killed 307 people. The official version was that the bombings were the work of an armed group from the Northern Caucasus, however there were rumours at the time that the bombings had been carried out by the FSB. The authors allege that this was in order to raise Putin’s popularity after Boris Yeltsin’s handover of power to him.
If earlier attempts to prevent the book being published were repressive, but unofficial, in May 2015, it was added, as No. 2791 to the List of Extremist Materials with people facing prosecution if they try to circulate or publish it. An Internet site was also forced to remove it.
43-year-old Litvinenko died in hospital on Nov 23, 2006, after falling ill on Nov 1 with radioactive polonium-210-induced acute radiation syndrome.
He had met with two Russian nationals – Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun – in the Millennium Hotel on Nov 1, and it is they who are suspected of having put the polonium in his tea. The evidence against the men is compelling as they left traces of the radioactive polonium wherever they went, and even on the seats they sat in on the plane back to Moscow.
The UK’s request for Lugovoi’s extradition was rejected, and in September 2007, Lugovoi became an MP in Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s LDPR Party. In March 2015, Putin honoured Lugovoi, described as the deputy head of the State Duma Committee on Security and Countering Corruption. The only information provided was that it was “for courage and daring demonstrated in carrying out work duties in conditions linked with risk to life”.
Despite the enormous weight of evidence against Lugovoi and Russia’s unwillingness to cooperate with the British investigators, Britain long avoided the damaging effect, particularly to its economic interests, of giving the case too much publicity and a full inquiry into Litvinenko’s murder was only announced on July 22, 2014. Public hearings took place from Jan 27 to July 31. The report is expected at the end of 2015 (see the website of the Inquiry for more information)
The report will surely be damning. All sorts of things came out during the inquiry, including the fact that Litvinenko had, shortly before his murder, been investigating a number of top-ranking Russian politicians including Viktor Ivanov, one of Putin’s closest allies and now the head of the Russian Federal Narcotics Agency. The High Court was read an excerpt from the report stating that “When Ivanov was cooperating with gangsters he was protected by Vladimir Putin, who was responsible for foreign economic relations … Putin himself was not Mr Clean at that time.”
Most importantly, Scotland Yard (the Metropolitan Police) itself directly accused the Russian state of involvement in the murder of Litvinenko, and was scathing about its failure to cooperate with the investigation. It stressed that it wanted Lugovoi and Kovtun tried in the UK for murder, and made it quite clear that it considered the two men to have been ignorant “common murderers” used as pawns by their “masters”.
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