UK: No public inquiry over Litvinenko poisoning

LONDON (AP) — British officials have refused to hold a public inquiry into the death of former Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko, a coroner said Friday, quashing what he described as the best hope of finding out what lay behind the ex-spy’s radioactive poisoning.

Litvinenko’s widow, who blames the Kremlin for her husband’s death, accused Britain of putting relations with Russia ahead of uncovering the truth.

“It looks like a very political decision, what happened today,” Marina Litvinenko said outside London’s Royal Courts of Justice.

“I still have a very long way to get justice.”

Coroner Robert Owen told a court hearing that the government informed him Friday that it was turning down his request for an inquiry, but had not given reasons.

Owen is overseeing a long-delayed inquest into the death of Litvinenko, a KGB agent-turned-Kremlin critic who died in November 2006 after drinking tea laced with the radioactive isotope polonium-210 at a London hotel.

Britain accuses two Russians of the killing, but Moscow refuses to extradite them.

Lawyers for Litvinenko’s family say he was working for Britain’s intelligence services when he died, and claim the Kremlin ordered his killing.

Coroners typically hold inquests in public to determine the facts behind a violent or unexpected death, but the national security considerations surrounding Litvinenko’s killing led Britain’s government to bar Owen from considering sensitive evidence.

Owen has said the secrecy restrictions meant that his inquest would be effectively powerless to determine whether the Russian state was involved in Litvinenko’s killing and whether Britain’s intelligence services could have done more to prevent it.

Marina Litvinenko, the coroner and a group of British media companies have all called for a separate inquiry, arguing that an independent investigation outside the inquest process would have a better chance of finding out the truth — for example because an inquiry might be able to consider classified material in private.

Marina Litvinenko’s lawyer, Ben Emmerson, lashed out at the British government over the decision, accusing it of showing “utter contempt” for her family and for the inquest.

“The disrespect with which Her Majesty’s Government has treated this court is of course a matter of grave concern,” Emmerson said.

He said the Litvinenko family had been “treated in the ultimate shabby way by this administration” and said Marina would try to challenge the government decision in court.

Emmerson asked Owen to consider doing the same, saying Marino Litvinenko was not receiving legal aid and could face financial ruin if she lost a court challenge to the government.

Owen did not indicate what he would do next, but said his oft-postponed inquest would not begin as planned on Oct. 2.

“The timetable is now out of my control,” the coroner said.

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