President Vladimir Putin “probably” approved the assassination of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006, a public inquiry has found.
In a dramatic conclusion, Robert Owen said it was likely the Russian leader signed off the killing of the former spy following a long-running feud.
His 300-page report said Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun were probably acting under the direction of Moscow’s FSB intelligence service when they poisoned the 43-year-old with radioactive polonium 210 at the Millennium Hotel in Mayfair.
Singling out then-FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev alongside Mr Putin, Owen wrote: “Taking full account of all the evidence and analysis available to me I find that the FSB operation to kill Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr Patrushev and also by President Putin.”
Mr Litvinenko’s widow Marina said outside the High Court she was “very pleased that the words my husband spoke on his deathbed when he accused Mr Putin have been proved by an English court”.
Downing Street had no immediate comment on the report, but confirmed British Home Secretary Theresa May will be giving the UK government's response in an oral statement to the House of Commons in the next few hours.
There have been fears that linking the killing directly to Mr Putin could trigger fresh strain on relations between Britain and Russia.
Mr Owen pointed to Mr Litvinenko’s work for British intelligence, criticism of the FSB and Mr Putin, and his association with other dissidents such as Boris Berezovsky as likely motives.
There was also “undoubtedly a personal dimension to the antagonism” between Mr Putin and Litvinenko.
Tensions dated back to their only face-to-face meeting in 1998, when Mr Putin was head of the FSB and Litvinenko wanted him to bring in reforms.
The dissident made “repeated highly personal attacks” on the President after seeking asylum in the UK in 2000, including an allegation of paedophilia in July 2006.
“I am satisfied that in general terms, members of the Putin administration, including the president himself and the FSB, had motives for taking action against Litvinenko, including killing him, in late 2006,” Owen wrote.
Although evidence was “circumstantial”, other cases suggested that “in the years prior to Litvinenko’s death the Russian state may have been involved in the assassination of Mr Putin’s critics”.
Mr Owen said he was “sure” Mr Litvinenko’s murder had been carried out by Lugovoy and Kovtun, who are both wanted by UK authorities but who Russia has refused to extradite.
The use of polonium 210 was “at the very least a strong indicator of state involvement”, as it had to be made in a nuclear reactor.
The inquiry heard evidence that Litvinenko may have been consigned to a slow death from radiation rather than shot in order to “send a message”.
Lugovoi has been “lionised’ in Russia since the killing, becoming a member of the Duma, the Russian Parliament, and receiving an award from Mr Putin.
Mr Owen suggested that showed Moscow was signalling approval of the murder, although he stressed that by itself did not necessarily mean it was involved.
In a statement released from his deathbed in 2006, Mr Litvinenko had said: “You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life.
“May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me but to beloved Russia and its people.”