Dead man's tales

Why would the Kremlin seek to erase Alexander Litvinenko, a small-time former KGB man?

    Dead man's tales
    Some hotheads even went as far as claiming that Putin himself ordered the hit, writes Nekrassov [EPA]

    The inquest into the death of Alexander Litvinenko opened in London this week, to the tune of bizarre comments and statements made by all the usual suspects and the British media. Now is a good time to take a closer look at some of the aspects of the case that are not widely known to the general public, both in Britain and beyond.

    First, a reminder of what had happened back in October and November 2006. Former KGB and FSB agent Alexander Valterovich Litvinenko became the focus of the world's attention having been, as the story went, poisoned by radioactive Polonium-210 that was supposedly sent by "Russian agents" to London on the orders of the Kremlin. Some hotheads even went as far as claiming that it was President Vladimir Putin himself who ordered the hit on the "outspoken critic" of the Russian regime to dispose of him.

    The photo of Litvinenko succumbing to the radiation sickness on a hospital bed, head shaven to render the image even more provocative, was printed and reprinted in Britain and around the world countless times.

    Full-blown campaigns

    The late exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who had fallen out with the Kremlin and fled Russia at the end of 2000, was quick to use this occasion to launch a full-blown campaign against Putin. He accused the Russian president of sanctioning the cold-blooded murder of his opponent who was supposedly living in Britain, having been provided with political asylum, and later with citizenship, as he feared for his life.

    Few words, if any, were said about the fact that Litvinenko was merely a small-timer during his unremarkable service in the KGB and later in the renamed FSB, that he was practically unknown in Russia, or that he was of no relevance to the Russian government.

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    However, he did help Berezovsky, along with two other FSB agents, stage a spectacular stunt and provided "evidence" at a press conference in Moscow revealing that Russian intelligence was supposedly planning to "murder" the oligarch. He was later terminated from the FSB and fled to Britain.

    However, the climax came when Litvinenko dictated an open letter to Putin from his death bed, accusing him of ordering his murder. The letter was read out by one of Berezovsky's people, posing as a "friend" of the Litvinenko family, in front of the world media which had taken it as a given that the victim would have known for sure who carried out the hit.

    What was even more puzzling was that Litvinenko, who could barely speak English, had suddenly acquired enough proficiency to compile such a well-worded document.       

    The two main suspects in the case were Andrey Lugovoy, a former KGB officer who worked for Berezovsky in the past as a security expert, and Mikhail Kovtun, a Russian businessman based in Germany with links to the former KGB. According to Scotland Yard's official version, both men came to London and met Litvinenko twice, administering the Polonium-210 into his tea while meeting him for a second time at a top London hotel in Mayfair. Later Litvinenko felt unwell and eventually succumbed to the effects of Polonium-210, dying a horrific death. The autopsy results established the presence of a radioactive substance in his body.

    Refusal to extradite

    The British government demanded that Russia extradite both Lugovoy and Kovtun to the UK, to stand trial on charges of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko but Russia refused, citing its constitution that forbids extradition of its citizens to stand trial abroad. They asked for evidence to be presented to help make a decision and maybe even conduct the trial in Moscow.

    The first reports about Litvinenko going to the British police and hospital claiming to have been poisoned had actually been made by the Russian media. They pointed out that both the cops and the medics refused to accept Litvinenko's account of what had happened to him and sent him home. The British media at the time had no idea who the man was and simply ignored the story.

    A dossier compiled by Scotland Yard had been passed to the Kremlin by then British ambassador, Tony Brenton. The dossier had been examined in Moscow but was found to contain no concrete evidence that shed any light on the matter.

    Although it has never been made public, I was told by my Kremlin sources and Deputy Prosecutor General Alexander Zvyagintsev who was handling the case, that it was rather a flimsy effort to pin the blame on Lugovoy and Kovtun for the murder of Litvinenko. Furthermore, Brenton confirmed to me as well that the Scotland Yard document was based on purely circumstantial evidence and contained no conclusive facts. Even though the British media was claiming that it was "conclusive" and even "damning".

    The first reports about Litvinenko going to the British police and hospital claiming to have been poisoned had actually been made by the Russian media. They pointed out that both the cops and the medics refused to accept Litvinenko's account of what had happened to him and sent him home. The British media at the time had no idea who the man was and simply ignored the story.


    Would the British police have rejected Litvinenko's assertions if he was a "well-known dissident", an "outspoken critic of Putin" and a "man who feared for his life", as Berezovsky's people portrayed him after his death?

    All known foreign dissidents in Britain are treated as possible targets and their concerns are taken very seriously. Having served as special adviser to the Russian Security Council in the 1990s while he was deputy chairman, I had some knowledge about the tycoon's unconventional past and was suspicious when I found that Berezovsky and his people were all around Litvinenko when he fell ill.

    The British investigators' most important omission of evidence was the fact that Berezovsky cut off Litvinenko's funding at the end of 2004, a fact that was confirmed to me by one of Berezovsky's people.

    A former bodyguard of Berezovsky told me that Litvinenko was desperate for money and was ready to do anything to survive. He was looking at all options, including risky ones. To think that Berezovsky portrayed Litvinenko as his "dearest friend" after his death was an exaggeration.

    The bottom line in this saga is this: Why would the Kremlin organise a sophisticated hit on a man who was unknown in Russia, had no access to any confidential information and posed no threat to the Kremlin whatsoever? Not to mention using a toxic nuclear material to poison him, even though the risk of exposure was immense? It eludes even the simplest logic. In fact, it somehow points the finger of blame in the other direction altogether.     

    Now we have the inquest into Litvinenko's death in London. In the very first hearing, the QC acting for the dead man's widow and his son called Putin a "common criminal dressed up as a head of state" who supposedly ordered Litvinenko's killing.

    We can only expect more propaganda to come out of these hearings and the truth will probably never be established with that kind of attitude.

    Alexander Nekrassov is a former Kremlin and government adviser.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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