It is almost six years since the Russian exile Alexander Litvinenko died in a London hospital, just weeks after being granted British citizenship. But it is only now, after repeated demands from his widow Marina, that an inquest is finally on the horizon. It is due to open early next year, with a High Court judge, Sir Robert Owen – rather than the St Pancras coroner – presiding.
The long delay is one reason for fearing that the whole truth about this shocking and extraordinary case may not emerge. However vivid certain details remain – the image of an assassin slipping polonium-210 into his victim's cup of tea at a London hotel – memories fade. Another reason, however, which is less understandable than the first, and eminently avoidable, is something that came out of a pre-inquest review hearing this week.
The report on the police investigation, it transpired, will be made available only to certain individuals, including his widow, and then only in redacted form. What has been redacted, it was disclosed, is a section about whether and how the Russian former spy might have co-operated with British intelligence. The redaction has been made at the Government's request.
In broaching the subject of the police report, counsel for the inquest, Hugh Davies, said: "This redaction should not be taken as indicating one way or the other whether Mr Litvinenko did indeed have such contact." To which the only reasonable response has to be hollow laughter. If no arm of British intelligence had anything to do with Mr Litvinenko during his years in Britain, given his career in business intelligence for the Russian police, then it was derelict in its duties. Not only this, but it has been widely reported, and confirmed by his widow, that he received a regular, and not ungenerous, stipend from MI5 or MI6.
Whether Mr Litvinenko had contacts with British intelligence may or may not be pertinent to his death. But if such a pervasive suspicion about his life in Britain is to be off limits to the public part of the inquest, it has to be asked how complete that inquest is likely to be. If, as it also appears, some police testimony and all the intelligence evidence is to be heard in camera, even more doubt must be cast on the value of an exercise that is expected to cost the country's taxpayers upwards of £4m.
One reason for the long delay is that the UK authorities hoped they would be able to hold a trial of the chief suspect in the killing, a former KGB agent and associate of Mr Litvinenko, Andrei Lugovoi. But Moscow refused to hand him over, citing the provisions of its constitution, and he was found a seat in the Russian parliament which affords him immunity from prosecution.
In this respect, an inquest is second best. It also amounts to an acceptance that such a trial will not take place. But the impossibility of bringing Mr Lugovoi – and a second Russian suspect, Dmitry Kovtun – to trial in Britain places all the more responsibility on the inquest to delve into every aspect of this case. Marina Litvinenko's belief, partly on the basis of a deathbed statement attributed to her husband, is that the Russian state was responsible for his death. If that is so, and it is an explanation that the UK authorities have never discouraged, then UK-Russia relations will again, and rightly, enter the deep freeze. The stakes are extremely high.
It is not necessary to succumb to the wilder flights of conspiracy theories, however, to appreciate that doubts attend almost every aspect of this case. Both common human decency and Britain's vital national interests dictate that this inquest has to be conducted in a way that inspires public confidence. Regrettably, first details are not encouraging.