The former KGB officer named as a suspect in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London last year said today the British Government’s case against him has collapsed and called the dead man a “traitor”.
Andrei Lugovoi, who is running for the Russian parliament in the December 2 elections, said he expects his accusers to use the November 24 anniversary of Mr Litvinenko’s agonising death from radiation poisoning to renew their calls for his extradition.
But the 43-year-old multimillionaire said the Russian constitution prevents him being handed over and he is not concerned about what British officials and Mr Litvinenko’s friends might demand.
Mr Lugovoi, sitting in his office in the Radisson Slavyanskaya hotel overlooking the Moscow River, said: “I don’t give a damn about this raving and barking from across the Channel.
“Several times, Russia’s law enforcement system and I have asked the British to provide proof and the evidence against me.
“So far, they have no proof of any kind, and everything about the Litvinenko case is politicised. I’m sure they … will keep the issue hot to further discredit Russia on the international scene.”
Mr Lugovoi also alleged that the British are being egged on by fugitives wanted in Russia who are living in London. He said: “Britain has always been a country that allows all sorts of bastards to seek refuge on its territory.”
Mr Lugovoi insisted that he would have returned to Britain to discuss the allegations against him if he had been invited. He seemed to taunt the British secret services, saying that the case against him has essentially collapsed.
“I congratulate MI6 and all British secret services with the loudest flop in their history,” he said.
Mr Litvinenko, himself a veteran of Russia’s security agencies, co-authored a book accusing former colleagues in Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, of involvement in a series of deadly apartment house bombings in 1999. He fled to Britain in 2000 and was granted political asylum a year later.
Just before his death, Mr Litvinenko was investigating the killing of Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist and determined critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Mr Litvinenko was poisoned with the rare radioactive isotope polonium-210. On his deathbed he blamed Mr Putin. The Kremlin denies the allegation.
Mr Lugovoi, who met the dead man the day he fell ill, said Mr Litvinenko has been falsely portrayed by the British Government.
“What really annoys me is how the British authorities say that Litvinenko was just a dissident writer living in London,” he said.
“How can we talk about him being a writer when he was actually a traitor working for the English secret services, for which he was paid money?”
He repeated earlier charges that Mr Litvinenko had approached him about working as an informant for the British foreign intelligence service, MI6.
“British intelligence tried to recruit me,” Mr Lugovoi said. “They tried to force me to betray Russia.”
Last month, the Daily Mail reported that Mr Litvinenko was paid a monthly retainer of £2,000 by British secret services, and that he was recruited by Sir John Scarlett, the head of MI6.
Mr Lugovoi, a fan of the 19th century detective writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, said Mr Litvinenko’s death resembles the Sherlock Holmes story A Study In Scarlet, in which police initially accuse the wrong man.
The title of the story echoes the name of the MI6 chief.
The Crown Prosecution Service announced on May 22 that it had enough evidence to charge Mr Lugovoi with poisoning Mr Litvinenko and British authorities requested his extradition a few days later.
However, Moscow denied the request in July, citing a constitutional bar against extraditing Russian citizens.
London expelled four Russian diplomats and Moscow kicked out four British diplomats shortly after.
As late as last month, British authorities asked for permission to send Scotland Yard investigators to Russia to investigate the case.
Mr Litvinenko fell ill following a meeting with Mr Lugovoi and others in the bar of a London hotel. Tests showed that a teapot at the bar was contaminated by polonium 210, a rare radioactive isotope.
Traces of the substance were discovered in several places Mr Lugovoi visited in London, along with at least two airliners he flew on.
Mr Lugovoi said Russian investigators tried and failed to find a similar polonium trail in Moscow, and he accused British intelligence agencies of planting evidence in London.
“After my visit to the hotel, people from British intelligence went there to leave polonium deliberately,” he said.
Mr Litvinenko died in a British hospital on November 23 last year of organ failure, three weeks after he fell ill. Photos of him near death, with his hair fallen out and his skin turned a sickly yellow, shocked the world.
The Litvinenko case has not caused a rift between Russia and Britain, Mr Lugovoi maintained, because Britain has historically regarded Russia as an enemy and imperial rival.
He said: “Britain has always waged a war against Russia – be it cold or hot - and utilised both its capacities and those of its neighbours.
“The Cold War never started or ended, it always has been.”
In addition to driving Britain’s relations with Russia to a post-Soviet low, the allegations against Mr Lugovoi turned the once-obscure veteran of the Soviet and Russian security services into something of a celebrity.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, placed Mr Lugovoi’s name among the top three on the party list of candidates for parliament.
A seat in parliament would give him legal immunity, but he said that he was running because he felt it was his patriotic duty.
“I got tired of sitting in shade and decided to get out of the trenches and be more active in the whole story,” he told the Associated Press.
“I want Russians to keep Russia great and ignore the experience of so-called Western democracy, which has never done any good.”
Asked whether voters believe he is innocent or guilty, Mr Lugovoi said the subject never comes up on the campaign trial.
“I’ve never met anyone who reproached me about this whole affair,” he said. “Nobody has said anything.”