IT WAS THE first day of November 2006 and Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian man living in London, decided to meet with two of his fellow countrymen for tea.
The 43-year-old by then British citizen had something else in common with Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun. All three were or had been Russian agents.
Although he had left behind his FSB (the successor to the KGB) past, Litvinenko had not left the espionage world. He was in the employment of Britain’s secret service MI6.
Soon after taking tea with his former colleagues in the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel in Grosvenor Square, Litvinenko took ill. He spent that night vomiting and just two days later he was admitted to a hospital in north London.
There, he told his physicians that he suspected that he had been poisoned. But only some symptoms of radioactivity were present: he was losing his hair rapidly but there was no radiation in his body according to Geiger counter tests.
Police were called and officers from Scotland Yard originally dealt with the unusual case. However, the force’s counter-terrorism unit were soon involved. It’s head Peter Clarke has since said:
A colleague came into my office and explained that – in hospital in north London – was a man telling a quite extraordinary story. He was saying that he was a former member of a Russian intelligence agency and that he believed he’d been poisoned by some of his former colleagues.
Everyone was flummoxed by the case. Why was this man so ill? Why could they not find out what the poison was?
It didn’t take long before the media got wind that he was a victim of – as he described himself – “serious poisoning” and was in “bad shape”.
About two weeks after first being admitted to hospital he was transferred to University College Hospital for intensive care. His white cell blood count had floored, his bone marrow had failed and his immune system was non-existent. Soon, all of his key organs would be destroyed.
He was being killed from the inside out.
And nobody could figure out exactly why.
Eventually, some of his blood was sent to a nuclear research facility in Berkshire where experts there figured it out, with a little luck. Initial tests came back negative for radioactive poison and it looked like it was back to square one for the doctors. However, another scientist in the building had expert knowledge on a substance called polonium-210. He happened to be beside the pair who were discussing the case.
He had overheard them talking about a tiny, almost negligible spike in the results and he was able to tell them it was a sign of polonium-210 (which was a vital component in early nuclear bombs).
It didn’t help Litvinenko though. His medical team now knew what they were dealing with. Which meant they knew there was nothing they could do. Once he put that teacup to his mouth on 1 November, he was dead. There was no treatment that could stop the poison working through his body.
On 23 November, with his wife Marina by his side, the father-of-one died.
The case, now a murder investigation, had been receiving a lot of media attention and it had the potential to turn into a national crisis. A British citizen had been killed with a lethal dose of radioactive polonium in a public place.
A co-ordinated political and police strategy was required domestically, without even mentioning the diplomatic headaches to come.
First up: do citizens have to worry about radioactive materials being left around London? There were elements of the poison found all over the city in the days that followed as police retraced the movements of Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun. The pair first met each other on 16 October so there was more than two weeks of back-dated surveillance to be done.
The polonium trail included a sushi bar, a Best Western Hotel, a room at the Sheraton, a British Airways aircraft, various restaurants, the Emirates football stadium (where Lugovoi watched Arsenal take on CSKA Moscow), the Tube and the Pine Bar at the Millennium Hotel.
Lugovoi and Kovtun were obvious suspects: one or other of them had been to each of these locations. In the bathroom opposite the business centre in the Millenium, where CCTV footage captured the pair entering, there was heavy contamination of polonium-210 on sinks, a hand-dryer and a cubicle door. According to BBC News:
When Lugovoi and Kovtun’s movements were mapped against the sites of polonium contamination, there was an exact match.
While dying in hospital, Litvinenko had also told the BBC and his wife that Russia – and in particular President Vladimir Putin – was responsible for his horrific death. He talked plenty about how he was looking into the shooting of Russian journalist and fellow Kremlin opponent Anna Politkovskaya.
He even released a statement – through his family – after he died.
Putin and he had an interesting past. Litvinenko joined the KGB in 1988 where he climbed ladders quickly. During the 1990s, Putin was his command but they allegedly argued over corruption within the service.
In 1998, he turned and revealed details of an alleged plot to shoot dead Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky. Litvinenko was arrested but later acquitted of charges of abusing his office (Berezovsky died in 2014 with a coroner unable to decide if he died by suicide or was unlawfully killed).
After nine months in a remand centre, Litvinenko left the service and wrote a book Blowing up Russia: Terror from Within. In it, he makes very serious accusations that the bombings of apartment blocks in three cities were actually carried out by FSB agents in order to give Russia a ‘reason’ to invade Chechnya (the blasts were blamed on separatists). Three hundred people perished in those attacks.
Once the book was published, Litvinenko had to leave his home country and was granted asylum in the UK. Putin wasn’t his only enemy but he remained steadfast in his vocal criticism of him, accusing the FSB of training al-Qaeda members involved in the 9/11 attacks.
Just a few months before his death, he had written an online article making even more allegations against the president. He accused him of being a paedophile because of a photo which had emerged of Putin kissing a boy’s stomach.
Russia has continued to deny any involvement in the death of their former spy. Furthermore, it refused to extradite Lugovoi to the UK after the public prosecutor there said he should be charged with murder.
Russia’s constitution does not allow for the extradition of any of its citizens, something British authorities didn’t look kindly on. With a British citizen dead in a hugely-publicised case, a diplomatic stand-off was inevitable.
By the end of July 2007, four Russian and four British diplomats had been thrown out of their respective countries. A truce was briefly called between the security service ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.
Both Lugovoi and Kovtun also deny they had anything to do with the deadly poisoning of their former colleague. They have put forward Litvinenko’s new allies in MI6 as possible other suspects.
Last year, Putin awarded Lugovoi with a medal for services to the state.
The case has rumbled on for years with a coroner ruling in June 2007 that an inquest should be delayed to allow for a public inquiry.
Politics then interfered with ministers ruling out the option multiple times – until the High Court sided with Marina, Alexander’s wife, and forced them into it. The judge ruled the Home Office was incorrect in ruling out the probe before the outcome of an inquest.
The public inquiry – which Marina had fought so hard for – began in January 2015 and ended last July.
Its report is expected to land on Home Secretary Theresa May’s desk this month with a view to publication on 21 January.
It’s not likely that Litvinenko’s killer or killers will be brought in front of any court of justice, but we might learn more about exactly what happened to him during that fateful afternoon tea.