The death of Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko gives rise to issues of “utmost gravity” including allegations of state-sponsored assassination, the chair of a public inquiry has said.
Opening the long-awaited hearing into British citizen Mr Litvinenko’s death, Sir Robert Owen outlined some of the key issues and events.
Sir Robert said it has been noted that polonium – the deadly substance that was used to poison Mr Litvinenko in November 2006 – could have been used to “kill large numbers of people or spread general panic and hysteria among the public”.
Mr Litvinenko, 43, died in hospital nearly three weeks after he had consumed tea laced with radioactive polonium-210 while meeting two Russian men – one a former KGB officer – at the Millennium Hotel in London’s Grosvenor Square.
Former KGB bodyguard Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun have been identified as the prime suspects in the killing, but both deny any involvement and remain in Russia, the inquiry heard.
Sir Robert said sensitive evidence had established that there is a ``prima facie case'' as to the culpability of the Russian state in Mr Litvinenko's death.
Giving the background to the case, he said Britain's Home Secretary Theresa May wrote to him in July 2013 informing him that the Government had decided not to hold an inquiry at that time.
Sir Robert said: “Her decision was challenged in a claim brought on behalf of Marina and Anatoly Litvinenko (his wife and son) and was quashed in a judgment of the divisional court dated February 11 2014.
“In short, I will carry out a full and independent inquiry into the circumstances of the death of Alexander Litvinenko.”
Sir Robert said that both Lugovoi and Kovtun have been invited to give evidence to the inquiry via video link from Russia – an “invitation I hope will be accepted”.
Robin Tam QC, counsel to the inquiry, said a public health alert was issued around the time of Mr Litvinenko’s death when traces of polonium were found in “large numbers of places across London”.
“Many thousands of members of the public, including British residents and visitors from overseas, might have been at risk from radioactivity,” Mr Tam said.
The QC said many theories have been put forward about what happened to Mr Litvinenko, including that he was killed but also that he accidentally poisoned himself when handling the radioactive substance as part of a smuggling deal.
It has also been suggested that Mr Litvinenko committed suicide, Mr Tam said.
The counsel to the inquiry recounted the process that has unfolded in the eight years since Mr Litvinenko died, which saw an inquest replaced with this public inquiry.
Mr Tam said the inquiry approach will “continue to be the need to conduct a full, fair and fearless investigation”.
The QC then gave a detailed account of how the inquest was eventually replaced by an inquiry.
The British Government previously resisted launching an inquiry, instead saying it would ”wait and see” what a judge-led inquest found, but the UK's High Court ruled the British Home Secretary should reconsider the decision.