Berezovsky wins libel case over Litvinenko murder claim

Russian state television accused oligarch of being involved in Putin critic's death

The British-based businessman Boris Berezovsky has won his claim for libel after being falsely named on Russian state television as the man behind the murder of the former Moscow agent Alexander Litvinenko.

Mr Litvinenko, a strong critic of then Russian President Vladimir Putin, was poisoned with radioactive polonium-210 and died in London in November 2006, prompting a murder investigation that implicated Russia.

Yesterday Mr Berezovsky, 63, was awarded £150,000 in libel damages against both the TV channel RTR Planeta and Vladimir Terluk, the man who made the allegations, which were also broadcast on satellite television in the UK in April 2007.

During the High Court hearing in London, the judge, Mr Justice Eady, heard that the Russian State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (RTR) had declined to take part in the proceedings. It left Mr Terluk, whom Mr Berezovsky alleged was the silhouetted figure called Pyotr featured in the programme, "to face the music on his own" without legal representation.

The judge, who tried the case without a jury, said: "I can say unequivocally that there is no evidence before me that Mr Berezovsky had any part in the murder of Mr Litvinenko. Nor, for that matter, do I see any basis for reasonable grounds to suspect him of it."

Mr Berezovsky, who now lives in Surrey, had told the court that Mr Litvinenko, whom he knew as Sasha, had twice saved his life and that their shared history as exiles and opponents of President Putin and the Federal Security Service (FSB), which replaced the KGB, had cemented their friendship. He said he was concerned about the damage which the "absolutely outrageous" allegation would cause to his reputation.

Alexander Litvinenko's death was linked to a meeting with a group of Russians in a London hotel three years ago during which his tea was spiked with polonium.

After yesterday's ruling, Mr Berezovsky said: "I have no doubt that, in making this programme, the purpose of RTR and the Russian authorities was to undermine my asylum status in the UK and to put the investigation of Sasha Litvinenko's murder on the wrong track.

"I am pleased that the court, through its judgment, has unequivocally demolished RTR's claims. I trust the conclusions of the British investigators that the trail leads to Russia, and I hope that one day justice will prevail."

The central allegation in the programme Vesti Nedeli – the equivalent of BBC's Newsnight – was that Mr Berezovsky was somehow responsible for the murder of Mr Litvinenko. The motive was said to be that Mr Litvinenko was a witness to a conspiracy in 2003 to save Mr Berezovsky from extradition to Russia and instead obtain his political asylum in the UK.

Both RTR and Mr Terluk, who denied in court that he was Pyotr and pleaded justification, are jointly liable for the damages, but the judge acknowledged there were likely to be formidable obstacles in recovering the money.

Key figures in the case: Where are they now?

*The suspect

During interviews in Moscow with Scotland Yard investigators, the former KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi, 44, a wealthy businessman who once headed a private security firm, denied the accusations that he killed Litvinenko, saying he was also a victim in the case. Russia refuses to extradite Lugovoi, who is now a Russian parliamentarian with the Kremlin-aligned Liberal Democratic Party, and thus has state protection from extradition.

*The widow

Marina Litvinenko, 47, has spent the last few years campaigning to bring her husband's killers to justice. In 2007 she wrote a letter to President Putin asking him not to obstruct the British investigation of her husband's poisoning. Mrs Litvinenko, a qualified engineer who lives in London, co-wrote a book on the affair with Russian author Alex Goldfarb and has reportedly been working on a film project.

*The family

Litvinenko's father Walter, 71, has claimed that the Italian government refused him and his family refugee status because of Silvio Berlusconi's close friendship with Vladimir Putin. A restaurant in Rimini belonging to Alexander's chef brother Maxim was raided and closed down last year.