It is seven years, 34 weeks and four days since the fugitive Russian secret serviceman, Alexander Litvinenko, died a ghastly death in University College Hospital in London, after someone had dosed him with radioactive polonium, allegedly while he was sipping tea with two fellow Russians in a London hotel.
His widow, Marina, and his friends never doubted that he was murdered because he was considered to have betrayed his former employers at the FSB, successor to the KGB, Russia’s secret service. In their campaign for justice, they had to accept long ago that there was no realistic chance of Litvinenko’s suspected killers being brought to trial. But they have at last, after all these years, been given hope that the British authorities will get to the bottom of this bizarre and horrible event, after the Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced today that there is to be a formal inquiry into his death.
The decision is the right one, but the timing is – to put it politely – rather convenient, coming just four days after Flight MH17 was shot down.
The case has been an irritant in Russian-UK relations ever since a post-mortem examination uncovered the sensational cause of Litvinenko’s death. The Crown Prosecution Service has asked for two Russians, Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun, to be extradited. Both men deny killing Litvinenko and it is unlikely that either has ever lost a minute’s sleep worrying that they might end up in a British courtroom.
Lugovoy reacted to his extradition request in 2007 by contemptuously suggesting that the then Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, had “no brains”. The case made him a celebrity. In its wake, he was elected to the Duma. When Kovtun learnt that he too was subject to an extradition request, he lost no time spreading the news, as if he were greedy for a share of Lugovoy’s glory.
The inquest into Litvinenko’s death was also a frustrating, uncompleted affair, which has now been suspended. The law did not allow the coroner, Sir Robert Owen, to hear evidence in secret session, which meant that he could not delve into matters that may affect national security. Now that Sir Robert is heading a properly constituted inquiry, under the 2005 Inquiries Act, he will be able to examine British intelligence officers on what they know about who may have had the motive and the means to kill Litvinenko.
Moreover, witnesses will be able to give their evidence free from any fear that they will open themselves to criticism for not protecting the fugitive. Ms May has decided in advance that nobody could have foreseen that Litvinenko might be murdered on British soil, and has told Sir Robert not to stretch his inquiry into passing judgment on whether more should have been done to protect him.
Marina Litvinenko has had to fight long and hard to get to where we are now. That included obtaining a High Court ruling in February that the Home Office was wrong to refuse to open an inquiry while the never-ending inquest still hung in the air.
There may be some legitimate, bureaucratic reason that this welcome announcement of an inquiry should be made exactly as British-Russian relations hit a new nadir – but it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that the Government has chosen this as one more way to deliver a message that the West is losing patience with renegade Russians.