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A ruling that smacks of contempt

Alexander Litvinenko's widow would be forgiven for concluding that, on the moral plane at least, there is nothing to separate the secret services of Russia and Britain

It is one of the key tropes of John Le Carré’s novels that the secret services of Russia and its Western adversaries, while bitter enemies, also mirror each other. They watch each other closely. They work doggedly to counter the other’s every cunning move. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, when British spymaster George Smiley and his KGB counterpart Karla finally meet in India, it seems as if they already know each other intimately.

And today Marina Litvinenko, the widow of the murdered former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, would be forgiven for concluding that there is nothing between them on the moral plane either, for all Britain’s claims to the contrary.

Mr Litvinenko, a British citizen, was murdered with radioactive polonium-210 in 2006 after taking tea at a hotel in central London with two Russians, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun. Suspicion quickly fell on the Kremlin. Russia refused requests to extradite Mr Lugovoi and Mr Kovtun to face trial. Mrs Litvinenko’s hopes to discover just how and why her husband died then switched to the coroner’s inquest which, nearly seven years after his death, is now under way. But Sir Robert Owen, the coroner, agreed not to investigate whether the Russian state was involved because it could damage national security.

Sir Robert then requested a public inquiry into the death, which would be able to hear sensitive evidence in private. A senior judge, Lord Justice Goldring, endorsed the request. But yesterday, the Government turned it down flat.

Mrs Litvinenko, who believes that her husband was secretly working for MI6 when he was killed, has been frustrated at every turn in her efforts to learn the truth about her husband’s hideous end. It is debatable whether a public inquiry in which the key evidence was heard in secret would have addressed the problem, but its refusal shows, as the Litvinenko family said yesterday, utter contempt for its suffering.

Britain is the injured party in this affair: if relations between the UK and Russia are to be improved, it is up to President Vladimir Putin to take the initiative. Refusing Mrs Litvinenko’s legitimate demands for clarity can only worsen the public’s cynical view of politicians and their priorities.