The British government was accused of colluding with the Russians to cover up vital evidence into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko at a pre-inquest hearing into the former KGB agent's death today.
Ben Emmerson QC, representing Mr Litvinenko's widow Marina, suggested that the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary were more interested in lucrative trade deals with Russia than justice and were attempting to close down the inquest by the back door.
The claims came as Neil Sheldon, for the Government, attempted to have an array of documents kept secret under Public Interest Immunity (PII)
“Given that we know that there have been many occasions in the past when PII has been improperly claimed, and given the public interest in transparency, it is crucial, absolutely crucial, that the outcome of this hearing is to scotch once and for all any possible suggestion that it is because David Cameron is promoting trade with Russia that he has tried to close down this inquest,” said Mr Emmerson.
Mr Sheldon argued that Foreign Secretary William Hague had signed the PII certificate because he had a duty to ensure that nothing emerged that posed a “real risk of serious harm to the public interest”.
While the extent or content of these documents, thought to be largely from the intelligence services, were not revealed to anyone else, a selection are to be put before Sir Robert Owen, assistant deputy coroner, who will make a decision tomorrow as to whether they will be made public.
Mr Litvinenko, 43, died of polonium-210 poisoning in November 2006 after meeting two former KGB contacts - Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun - at the Millennium Hotel in London's Grosvenor Square.
Prosecutors named Mr Lugovoy as the main suspect in the case but Russia has refused to extradite him to the UK for questioning. At a previous pre-hearing into his death Mr Emmerson said there was clear evidence that Mr Litvinenko was an MI6 agent and that Mr Lugovoy was acting under instruction from the Kremlin.
Today Mr Emmerson said that, if this evidence was now being withheld from the inquest under PII that the coroner could be placed in an impossible position.
“It could be that you issue a judgement that exonerates them even though you have been shown material that proves they are guilty. That is a staggering situation,” said the barrister, adding: “This is beginning to look like you are being steam-rollered by two states acting in collaboration with each other.”
The inquest was due to start in May but may now have to be delayed, the hearing was told.