Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Lugovoi case not proven

The press have picked up on Andrei Lugovoi’s intended attendance at an event in Moscow tonight, at which a lot of British people will also be present. Lugovoi has garnered substantial publicity thanks to allegations that he murdered ex-KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko. These have propelled him into the Russian Duma where he represents Zhirinovsky’s extreme nationalist Liberal Democratic Party (not as the Guardian claims, a pro-Kremlin party, but rather a party in opposition to Putin’s United Russia).

It is perhaps a timely moment to remember that theories about Lugovoi murdering Litvinenko, whether under instructions directly from Putin, or directed instead by a renegade group of ‘siloviki’, are merely that – theories – and that a growing body of evidence is being adduced to suggest that Britain’s case against Lugovoi is a weak one and that other possibilities are equally plausible. Mary Dejevsky has provided a useful synthesis of these arguments in the Independent (many of which draw on an extensively researched New York Sun article by Edward Jay Esptein). She breaks down the problematic aspects of the case into a number of categories which I will briefly reprise here.


Polonium 210 is not necessarily, as has been presented in the press, produced only in Russia. Any country with a nuclear reactor not inspected by the IAEA can produce the substance, including India, China, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.

Polonium 210 is considered an unlikely murder weapon due to its cost. It is however highly prized on the international market, due to its application in constructing nuclear devices. Thus the possibility that Litvinenko died from accidental exposure to the substance, whilst involved in a smuggling operation, should not be discounted.


The former agent’s involvement has been adduced due to his meeting with Litvinenko coupled with the trail of radiation left in various locations to which he was linked. However Epsteain has suggested that the British authorities have omitted flights and contaminated sites which do not suggest the involvement of Lugovoi in order not to contradict their thesis. Alternative theories linking the omitted sites point to Litvinenko himself being the source of the radiation. An office building owned by Boris Berezovsky was reported at the time to be contaminated, but does not feature in the revised ‘official trail’.

The poisoning is alleged to have taken place in the Pine Bar in the Millennium Hotel via a contaminated pot of tea. Lugovoi insists that he does not remember tea being served during his brief meeting with the dead man and no CCTV footage has been produced to prove otherwise, despite plentiful cameras in the bar. Corroboration of tea being served, given 7 months later by a waiter to a newspaper, is flimsy evidence at best. Dejevsky concludes:

“If there was any deliberate poisoning – by tea, or any other substance – the most plausible venue appears to be a room at the same hotel where the two met earlier that same day (1 November). But the two had met on two previous occasions as well: two weeks before at another hotel, and in August at Litvinenko's home. There is nothing, however, to prove conclusively who poisoned whom – nor to disprove the theory that Litvinenko might somehow have been poisoned by mistake.”

Lugovoi claims that MI6 attempted unsuccessfully to recruit him on several occasions. He also maintains that a motive has not yet been provided to suggest why he would murder to Litvinenko, or put his family at risk in order to do so. He has remained consistent under questioning.


Given the high profile of this case, very little attention has been paid to the exact nature of Litvinenko and his associates. “The authorised British version is that Alexander Litvinenko was a political refugee who paid the ultimate price for his vocal opposition to Putin”. Of course Litvinenko was in the pay of unreformed crook Boris Berezovsky, but what his duties actually entailed has not been made clear.

There are problems with claims that he used his intelligence knowledge to perform industrial due diligence and in terms of his use to western intelligence services, the US turned down his asylum application due to the low level nature of the material he was offering. His business relationship with Lugovoi extended back over 10 years both men having connections with Berezovsky. Pertinently it was Litvinenko who approached Lugovoi to organise the meeting which has become the centre of allegations.

Another of Litvinenko’s acquaintances was Italian businessman Mario Scaramella who is known to have been involved in ‘such murky deals’ as smuggling nuclear material. Another piece of circumstantial evidence links Litvinenko with the world of nuclear smuggling – his opaque business dealings took him frequently to Georgia where a Russian man was caught in an FBI sting attempting to smuggle uranium in 2007.


Of the link with MI6 Dejevsky comments:

“It seems safe to say that Litvinenko had a relationship with MI6, which could be seen as providing a motive for Russia – or rival Russian exiles – to eliminate him. But it could also be seen as a hint of desperation: perhaps he could find no other line of paying business. Whatever the truth, MI6 probably knows more about what happened to Litvinenko, and why, than might be concluded from its complete non-appearance in the authorised British version of his death.”


Berezovsky’s name surfaces time and time again in the Litvinenko case. He employed the dead man and also enjoyed connections with his alleged murderer (indeed he had previously employed Lugovoi’s security company). During Litvinenko’s protracted death the dissident billionaire bankrolled a publicity company to present the ex-spy’s demise as he wished it to be presented. Whether Berezovsky truly believed Litvinenko to be poisoned or not, the narrative he advanced became accepted, even after it was established that polonium, rather than thallium, was the substance which he had ingested.

Of course none of these ‘clusters of questions’ proves conclusively that the British government’s allegations against Lugovoi are not correct, it is important to remember though that there are other explanations which have not yet been properly investigated.

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