Alexander Litvinenko poisoning: Widow welcomes Government U-turn on public inquiry at time when UK-Russia relations are hardening

Move was previously resisted on diplomatic grounds

Crime Correspondent

The Government ramped up pressure on Russia today by announcing a public inquiry into the poisoning of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko – after previously refusing such calls on grounds of “international relations”.

The abrupt change of policy was welcomed by the former agent’s widow, Marina Litvinenko, as an opportunity to secure justice and to hold the Russian state responsible for his agonising death eight years ago.

Experts expressed scepticism about the Government’s assertion that the timing of the announcement was unrelated to attempts to increase pressure on Vladimir Putin following the downing of the Malaysia Airlines passenger jet over Ukraine. Whitehall officials said it was only announced yesterday to ensure the process was started before MPs’ summer recess began.

“No one in Russia will be thinking this is accidental and it probably isn’t,” said Henry Plater-Zyberk, a senior research fellow at the Prague Security Studies Institute. “I think it comes out as a cheap shot.”

Mrs Litvinenko welcomed the U-turn, but said she accepted that the result of any inquiry would not change Russian policy in refusing to send the two main suspects for the killing, Andrei Lugovoi – a former KGB officer and current member of the Russian parliament – and Dmitri Kovtun, to Britain to stand trial.

Under the terms of the inquiry, investigators can examine whether the Russian state was behind the murder but cannot look into whether the British authorities could have done anything to prevent his death. Mrs Litvinenko’s legal team will also not be able to view some documents on grounds of national security.

Marina Litvinenko welcomed the decision (Getty Images) Marina Litvinenko welcomed the decision (Getty Images)
The Government had previously refused to consider holding an inquiry until an inquest had run its course. But in February the High Court told the Home Secretary, Theresa May, to rethink her decision following a court challenge by Mrs Litvinenko. The inquiry will be chaired by senior judge Sir Robert Owen, the current coroner in the inquest.

Ms May detailed the change of plan yesterday in Parliament after the Prime Minister called for tougher sanctions against Russia over its policies in Ukraine. Mrs Litvinenko’s legal team said the timing of the decision was a “convergence of circumstances”.

“I don’t want to be used,” said Mrs Litvinenko. “I said from the beginning … it’s a case of murder but it’s happened because some state is behind this.” She said that she was “relieved and delighted” with this decision.

“It sends a message to Sasha’s murderers: no matter how strong and powerful you are, truth will win out in the end and you will be held accountable for your crimes,” she said in a statement.

“It has taken nearly eight years to bring those culpable for Sasha’s murder to justice. I look forward to the day when the truth behind my husband’s murder is revealed.”

Mr Litvinenko, 43, fled to Britain in 2000 and spent the last years of his life as a Kremlin critic, claiming that the FSB security service was linked to a series of bombings around Russia, which served as the pretext to go to war against Chechnya.

Mr Litvinenko died an agonising death in hospital three weeks after drinking a cup of tea believed to have been contaminated with polonium-210 during a meeting in London with the two suspects in 2006. The two men – named as suspects by the CPS – refused to take part in any inquest, and Russia’s refusal to co-operate in the police investigation led to a crisis in relations between the two countries.

A government spokesman said: “It is more than seven years since Mr Litvinenko’s death and this Government remains committed to seeking justice for his family.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
News
Robert De Niro has walked off the set of Edge of Darkness
news The Godfather Part II actor has an estimated wealth of over $200m
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower