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Russia says claims Putin ordered poisoning of ex-spy 'a joke'

A UK probe found that Putin ‘probably approved’ the killing.

Updated 4.14pm

Source: Sky News/YouTube

RUSSIAN PRESIDENT VLADIMIR Putin ‘probably approved’ the murder of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko according to a UK public inquiry.

However, the Kremlin has dismissed the findings as “a joke”.

Judge Robert Owen’s report says that he is certain Litvinenko was given tea laced with a fatal dose of polonium-210 at a London hotel in November 2006.

He says there is a “strong probability” that the FSB directed the killing, and the operation was “probably approved” by Putin. The FSB is Russia’s security service, a successor to the Cold War-era KGB.

More than nine years ago, Litvenenko had tea with two Russian men at a London hotel.

Three weeks later, he died of radioactive poisoning — after making a deathbed claim that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered his killing.

Moscow has always denied involvement, and almost a decade on, no one has been brought to justice.

Owen heard from 62 witnesses over six months of public hearings and — behind closed doors — saw secret intelligence evidence about Litvinenko and his links to UK spy agencies.

The judge has named Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi as the culprits, and says he has seen evidence of Russian state involvement.

Putin’s spokesperson dismissed the results of the inquiry as a possible “joke”.

“Maybe this is a joke,” Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

More likely it can be attributed to fine British humour — the fact that an open public inquiry is based on the classified data of special services, unnamed special services.

Foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said in a statement: “We had no reason to expect that the final findings of the politically motivated and extremely non-transparent process… would suddenly become objective and unbiased.”

Who was Alexander Litvinenko?

Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, told Owen’s inquiry that her husband was a loyal intelligence agent who grew disillusioned with Russia’s 1990s war in Chechnya and by what he saw as corruption within the FSB security service, successor to the KGB.

He fled to Britain in 2000 and was granted asylum, becoming a vocal critic of Putin and his allies.

When Litvinenko became violently ill in November 2006 at the age of 44, doctors were baffled. The cause would likely have remained a mystery were it not for a urine test conducted by a doctor, on a hunch, shortly before Litvinenko died. It revealed the presence of polonium-210, an isotope that is deadly if ingested in tiny quantities.

Litvinenko’s body was so radioactive that the autopsy was conducted by medics in protective clothing and ventilation hoods. A lawyer for the police said the killing may have exposed hundreds or even thousands of Londoners to radioactive contamination.

Who killed him?
RUSSIA INTELLIGENCE SERVICE Alexander Litvinenko, right, when he was in the Federal Security Service, and a Russian intelligence Source: AP/Press Association Images

British police have previously accused Kovtun and Lugovoi, the two Russians Litvinenko met for tea, of carrying out the killing, sponsored by elements in the Kremlin. Both deny involvement, and Moscow refuses to extradite them.

British detectives and scientists told the inquiry that a radioactive trail was left at hotels, restaurants and other sites across London visited by Kovtun and Lugovoi, a former FSB agent who is now a Russian lawmaker and was decorated by Putin for services to the nation.

Many Russian officials had reason to dislike Litvinenko. His family says he was working for MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence service. He had accused the Russian government of involvement in a series of apartment building explosions in 1999 that were blamed on Chechen rebels, and alleged links between senior Kremlin figures and organised crime. 

What could the reaction be?

Britain Poisoned Spy Marina Litvinenko Source: AP

Litvinenko’s wife Marina, dressed in black and accompanied by her 21-year-old son Anatoly, embraced supporters after the inquiry gave its verdict.

She has spent years pushing for a public inquiry to be held and had called for sanctions against Russia and a travel ban on Putin.

“I’m very pleased that the words my husband spoke on his deathbed when he accused Mr Putin of his murder have been proved true in an English court,” she told reporters outside the court.

She told AFP after the hearing:

I can’t say it is what I hoped for but I really appreciate it.

Litvinenko’s death soured British-Russian relations for years, and Russian involvement in Ukraine’s civil conflict made things even worse, bringing sanctions on Moscow by Western countries including Britain.

A finding of direct involvement in the killing by senior Russians could cause a further deterioration.

But Owen’s report comes as Russia and Britain are both involved in airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Syria. British diplomats believe Russia — an ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad — is key to ending that country’s brutal civil war. Russia, its economy hurt by low oil prices, would like to see an end to sanctions.

It may be in the interests of both Britain and Russia to limit the fallout from the Litvinenko killing.

In any case, there may be little Britain can do to influence behaviour in the Kremlin. The Soviet-era KGB didn’t hesitate to kill its enemies on foreign soil, sometimes with obscure poisons — Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov died after he was stabbed with a ricin-tipped umbrella on London’s Waterloo Bridge in 1978. Some believe the Kremlin’s attitude to opponents has changed little.

Lough noted that Putin allegedly once told a Russian journalist “that he distinguished between enemies and traitors”.

“He said that with enemies you can find a common language and agree on things, but in the case of traitors, they need to be liquidated.”

Contains reporting by AFP.

Read: Britain v Russia: The ex-spy, radioactive tea and a search for truth>

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