Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky sues over Alexander Litvinenko poison link

Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky today sued over a "savage libel" that he was behind the terrible murder of Alexander Litvinenko by radioactive poisoning.

The businessman has brought an action at London's High Court over an April 2007 broadcast about the murder on the TV channel RTR Planeta, which is available by satellite in the UK.

His counsel, Desmond Browne QC, told Mr Justice Eady that The Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (RTR), which had never suggested that what it broadcast was true, had declined to take part in the proceedings.

It had left Vladimir Terluk, who Mr Berezovsky alleges is the silhouetted figure called Pyotr who featured in the broadcast, "to face the music on his own" unrepresented by lawyers.

The judge, who is sitting without a jury, is trying the issue of damages in relation to RTR and that of liability and damages in respect of Mr Terluk, who denies he is Pyotr and also pleads justification.

Mr Browne told the court: "This case raises the ghost of Alexander Sasha Litvinenko, who four years ago stood in the witness box in this very court and warned of the long and murderous arm of the Russian state.

"That was in March 2006, and almost certainly this country's most notorious murder in recent times has been that of Mr Litvinenko in this capital city in November that same year.

"Certainly it was the most horrifying murder, since he died a prolonged and agonising death, the death throws being drawn out over three weeks as a result of being poisoned with radioactive polonium.

"But polonium is not only deadly - it has the characteristic of leaving an indelible trail.

"The Director of Public Prosecutions concluded, following that trail, that it led to Moscow and, in May 2007, he announced there was sufficient evidence to charge Andrei Lugovoi, a former KGB officer, with the murder.

"However Andrei Lugovoi, as we all know, is safely home in Moscow and the Russian authorities have declined to extradite him to face trial here.

"The story which you will hear in this trial is that of how Russian TV journalists, Russian diplomats and Russian prosecutors, in conjunction with a man who has been a long standing collaborator with the KGB and its successor, sought to blacken the name of a vociferous critic of the present Russian regime by suggesting he had knowingly been behind the murder of Mr Litvinenko.

"The name of that critic was, of course, Mr Berezovsky and the name of the collaborator was Vladimir Terluk.

"The motivation for this savage libel was not merely to undermine the security of the asylum Mr Berezovsky had been granted in 2003 on the ground of a well-founded fear of political persecution in Russia, but also to muddy the waters of the murder investigation and deflect attention from what the programme itself called the Russian trail leading back to Moscow."

He said that the libel which Russian state television broadcast, by its interview with Vladimir Terluk, was "as vicious as can be imagined".

"That was because not only did it accuse Mr Berezovsky of being a party to a terrible murder, but the defendants knew that the victim of that murder had been a long-standing friend of Mr Berezovsky's - indeed the evidence shows that Alexander Litvinenko was the man who had saved Mr Berezovsky's life on more than one occasion and had thereafter become a long-standing and trusted friend."

Mr Browne said that the programme at the heart of the case, Vesti Nedeli, was the equivalent of the BBC's Newsnight and had a very considerable audience in the UK, where there was now an "enormous" Russian expat community and a large number of Russian speakers.

The broadcast's audience was likely to have been in the tens of thousands at least.