Ukraine war: Delayed public inquiry into Salisbury novichok attack ‘must start urgently’ after Russian invasion

Inquiry will hear evidence of Russian state responsiblity for the death of Dawn Sturgess

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Editor
Friday 25 February 2022 12:25 GMT
The public inquiry will examine the circumstances of Dawn Sturgess’s death
The public inquiry will examine the circumstances of Dawn Sturgess’s death

A delayed public inquiry into the Salisbury novichok attack must be started urgently after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a hearing has been told.

The death of Dawn Sturgess, who died in July 2018 after being poisoned with the nerve agent, was initially being investigated by an inquest.

But last September Baroness Heather Hallett, a former High Court judge, said it must “urgently” be converted into a public inquiry with powers to hear sensitive material relating to intelligence over alleged Russian state responsibility for the attack.

Priti Patel granted the request in November, but a hearing on Friday was told that the public inquiry had not yet been set up.

A new chair has not been appointed to replace Lady Hallett after she was appointed to lead the national Covid inquiry.

She said that in a letter to the home secretary in September: “I stated that I was anxious to avoid any unnecessary delay and increased anguish for the bereaved family.”

In a letter sent in November, Ms Patel stated her intention to set up a public inquiry and indicated that it would be done “as soon as reasonably possible in 2022”.

Lady Hallett said the Home Office told her team that the Home Office would “do its utmost” to set up the inquiry and appoint a new chair by Friday’s hearing.

“With that history in mind, it is, I have to say, a disappointment to me to be sitting here today with no inquiry set up and no judge appointed to lead it,” she told the court.

“I have seen a letter from Birnberg Peirce, the solicitors who represent the Sturgess family and also Charlie Rowley, expressing a degree of frustration at the delay – that is a frustration that I share.”

Michael Mansfield QC, representing Ms Sturgess’ family as her father watched the hearing over a video link, said there “cannot be any further delay”.

“That delay not only relates to the personal circumstances of the family, but there is a poignancy about what is happening in eastern Europe and Ukraine at this very moment, of the urgency and the necessity of this inquiry not losing a single day,” he added.

'Nothing criminal' about UK Skripal suspects says Putin

“In view of the international matters happening at the moment we say there cannot be any further delay.”

Andrew O'Connor QC, counsel to the inquest, called the delay “frustrating” but said that background work on disclosing documents to different parties and preparing evidence continued.

The court heard that a letter sent by the Home Office on Thursday said the new chair would be appointed within two weeks.

Ben Watson QC, representing the home secretary, said he could not give any more information on how far the selection process had got and what steps had been taken.

“The context of the issue being considered is a very sensitive one,” he added. “Recent events have necessarily increased the demands on various teams within government and that is likely to have had an impact on the very final stages of this process.”

Mr Watson said it was Ms Patel’s aim “to set up the inquiry as soon as possible”.

Lady Hallett said she had been exerting pressure “behind the scenes” to speed the process up and had been concerned about delay when she agreed to chair the Covid inquiry.

“I’m not trying to shoot the messenger but I am trying to get a message across,” she added. “I know there are many things happening in the world … [but] the poisonings in Salisbury affected a great number of people.

“Many people have been affected and they too have a right to have these proceedings heard as soon as possible.”

Police have concluded that Ms Sturgess, a 44-year-old mother, was poisoned with the same nerve agent used to target Sergei Skripal.

The former GRU agent, who was given sanctuary in the UK in a “spy swap” after turning informant for MI6, and his daughter survived the poisoning.

The novichok, which had been applied to his front door, was concealed inside a counterfeit perfume bottle that was discarded by the perpetrators of the original attack.

It was found by Ms Sturgess’ partner Charlie Rowley, and he unwittingly gave it to her as a present in the belief that it was perfume.

She died in hospital after applying the novichok directly to her skin, while Mr Rowley survived.

Moscow has always denied involvement but Theresa May, then the prime minister, said the attack on Mr Skripal had “almost certainly” been approved by the Russian government.

Two GRU agents, Anatoliy Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, were charged with launching the attack on Mr Skripal in September 2018, but had flown back to Russia immediately after the attempted assassination.

A third GRU agent was charged in September 2021. Denis Sergeev, who travelled to the UK under the alias Sergey Fedotov, is believed to have commanded the two GRU agents who carried out the poisoning from a London hotel.

The men are subject to Interpol red notices and European Arrest Warrants, but the prospect of them leaving Russia or being extradited appears slim as the Kremlin continues to deny any involvement.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in