Moscow gets formal blame for the 2006 killing of a dissident in London

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Marco Werman: Now to one of those murder-conspiracy stories I mentioned earlier on The World. Do you remember Alexander Litvinenko, right? If not, here is the brief. Litvinenko was the former Russian spy who was poisoned in London in 2006. Before he died, he accused Vladimir Putin of ordering his murder. The Kremlin, of course, denies it. Today, the chairman of a court of inquiry in London said he'd seen enough evidence to provide a prima facie case that the Russian was involved. The BBC's Richard Galpin was in the courtroom.


Richard Galpin: Essentially what happened, said the allegation, is that two former members of the Russian secret services -- some men called Andrei Lugavoi and Dmitri Kovtun -- traveled to Moscow to London and they were carrying a vial of the highly radioactive and very, very poisonous material called polonium-210. They then held a meeting with Alexander Litvinenko in a hotel here in central London -- actually very close to the American Embassy -- where it's alleged that they put the polonium, which is a fluid, into tea which Alexander Litvinenko was drinking.


Werman: Now, if we're to believe the chairman of the inquiry, Robert Owen, he doesn't see this as just an attack on Litvinenko. He accuses Russia of a miniature nuclear attack on the whole city of London. Can you explain that?


Galpin: Yes, that's right. He's saying the evidence that has been seen so far -- secret intelligence evidence, which I think actually was seen when there was an attempt to have a proper inquest rather that the inquiry -- that there is a prima facie case that the Russian state was involved. But, certainly he did quote from other sources saying that what had happened was like a miniature nuclear attack on the streets of London. It obviously caused huge alarm here in London, that a radioactive substance had been used and it obviously potentially could have been very dangerous for a large number of people. Indeed, several hundred people were checked for signs of radiation poisoning.


Werman: What would have been the motive for the Kremlin to want Litvinenko dead?


Galpin: This is an absolutely key question. Back in the late 1990s Alexander Litvinenko, who was a fairly senior member of the FSB -- the successor to the KGB -- went public. They held this extraordinary news conference in Moscow with a number of other FSB agents and they accused that there was a unit within the FSB which was planning assassinations, including of a senior Russian politician and oligarch who was very powerful at the time in the Kremlin. Litvinenko also went on to say that the FSB... Alleging that it was riddled with corruption. Apparently, he then held a meeting with the head of the FSB who, at that time, was Vladimir Putin, who of course is now the Russian president. The result of that was that he was dismissed from the FSB and then put on trial. He was later acquitted of those -- well, several sets -- of charges, was facing another set, and then he and his family fled here to Britain where they were granted political asylum very quickly. But, then here in London he continued a very, very vocal campaign of opposition to Vladimir Putin.


Werman: A lot of people have suggested the Kremlin was responsible for Litvinenko's death. Litvinenko said so himself. Why, then, is this inquiry starting only now, more than eight years after his death?


Galpin: Another very good question. It's essentially because, initially, the British authorities had hoped to hold a trial, obviously. The police actually moved very quickly and within a matter of months had collected a whole dossier of evidence, which they handed over to prosecutors here, who announced that Dmitri Kovtun and Andrei Lugavoi should be charged and put on trial. However, the Russian government refused to extradite them and they actually say there's a clause in their constitution which prohibits extradition of Russian citizens to stand trial in other countries. So, the British government tried. They expelled Russian diplomats and there were tit for tat expulsions. Relations deteriorated, but nothing happened. Actually, the British government-- I remember speaking to British diplomats in Moscow at the time saying, "Well, we've tried. We're now going to 'park' the Litvinenko affair and get on with actually building better trade relations, which is the priority with Russia." However, back in London Marina Litvinenko, Alexander's widow, pushed and pushed for a proper investigation.


Werman: And how did Marina Litvinenko look today?


Galpin: I think for her this is obviously a huge moment. She said -- speaking to the BBC -- she has been working for this for the past... well, more than eight years. What she wants is to hear a definitive account of who was responsible for the murder of her husband. It's taken a very long time. She's been extraordinarily patient with it, but she wants to have some kind of conclusion and, therefore, some kind of closure. Of course, she believes she knows who was responsible and she wants that to be made public and be made known around the world.


Werman: That was the BBC's Richard Galpin speaking with me from London.