Secret details of Alexander Litvinenko’s life as a British intelligence agent were revealed yesterday at a preparatory hearing into the poisoned former KGB officer’s death.
The inquiry was told that the 43-year-old not only worked for MI6, but was helping the Spanish intelligence services investigating organised crime in Russia.
Mr Litvinenko died in hospital three weeks after being poisoned with radioactive polonium-210 after meeting fellow former KGB contacts for tea at a Mayfair hotel in 2006. The night before, the High Court judge Sir Robert Owen was told, he met with his MI6 handler “Martin”.
The inquest next May is likely to increase tensions between the UK and Russia, with the British government providing evidence that the foreign state was involved in the murder of its former agent.
Ben Emmerson QC, representing Mr Litvinenko’s widow Marina, claimed the British had failed to protect the former KGB officer: “At the time of his death Mr Litvinenko had been for a number of years a registered and paid agent in the employ of MI6.
“That relationship between Mr Litvinenko and his employers MI6 is sufficient to trigger an enhanced duty by the British government to ensure his safety when tasking him on dangerous operations.”
Paid through a bank account or in cash, Mr Litvinenko had a dedicated telephone to MI6, which tasked him with helping Jose Grinda Gonzalez, the Spanish prosecutor for corruption and organised crime.
A US embassy cable described how Mr Gonzalez had met the Americans and told them he was working on a thesis by Mr Litvinenko that “the Russian intelligence and security services – Grinda cited the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and military intelligence (GRU) – control organised crime in Russia. Grinda stated that he believes the thesis is accurate”.
As an agent to the Spanish intelligence services through a handler called “Uri”, Mr Litvinenko had been planning a trip to Madrid with Mr Lugovoi – a member of the FSB, and the man suspected of the murder – until he became ill from poisoning.
Mr Emmerson continued: “He made a phone call to Mr Lugovoi in hospital to discuss their planned trip together to Spain to provide intelligence to the Spanish prosecutor investigating Russian mafia links with the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin. He explained he was ill and could no longer go on their planned trip.”
Both Mr Lugovoi and Mr Kovtun – who also met him for tea at the Mayfair hotel – have denied any involvement in the killing but have refused to surrender to the British authorities.
Neil Garnham QC, representing the Government, responded that he could not comment on assertions that Mr Litvinenko was in the pay of MI6: “I can neither confirm nor deny.”
Hugh Davies, the barrister to the inquest, revealed that almost a year after it was invited to participate in the inquest, the Russian government had applied to be represented. On Wednesday, Mr Davies explained a letter was received requesting that the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation – sometimes compared with the American FBI – be granted “interested-person status” at the inquest in May.
He added that, having examined documents supplied by the British government, the inquiry team had failed to find evidence that supported a wide variety of theories including claims Mr Litvinenko had been murdered by the Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, the Spanish mafia, Italian academic Mario Scaramella or Chechen organisations.
However, he added: “Taken in isolation, our assessment is that the government material does establish a prima facie case as to the culpability of the Russian state in the death of Alexander Litvinenko.”
Sir Robert, sitting as Assistant Deputy Coroner, is expected to rule early next year on what will be admissible at the inquest as well as whether there is a case under the European Convention of Human Rights that the British state was culpable in the death “either in itself carrying out, or by its agents, the poisoning or by failing to take reasonable steps to protect Mr Litvinenko from a real risk to his life”.
A tangled web: Litvinenko’s network
*Alexander Litvinenko served in the KGB and its successor the Federal Security Service (FSB) but left in 2000, having been arrested for exceeding the authority of his position, charges which were dismissed.
*In 1998, Mr Litvinenko and other FSB officers accused their superiors of ordering the assassination of the Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky. He later worked on the oligarch’s security team and the men became friends.
*Having fled to Britain seeking asylum, he began working as an agent of MI6.
*Through the British he became a paid agent of the Spanish intelligence services, and provided information to Jose Grinda Gonzalez, the Spanish prosecutor for corruption and organised crime.
*Shortly before his death, he had been planning a trip to Spain with Andrei Lugovoi, pictured left, to provide intelligence to the Spanish prosecutor.
*He met with the fellow former KGB agent for tea on the day he fell ill.
*Dmitry Kovtun was also at the meeting on 1 November 2006. German detectives investigated Mr Kovtun for bringing traces of plutonium into Germany but dropped the case against him.