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Amber Rudd wins non-disclosure ruling over Alexander Perepilichnyy inquest

Published 23/11/2016

Amber Rudd argued at the High Court that revealing secret documents at the inquest would damage the public interest
Amber Rudd argued at the High Court that revealing secret documents at the inquest would damage the public interest

Home Secretary Amber Rudd has won a High Court order preventing the disclosure of "sensitive material" at the pending inquest into the death of Russian fraud whistleblower Alexander Perepilichnyy.

But a judge also raised the question whether a public inquiry into the death is needed.

Mr Perepilichnyy, 44, died after collapsing while running near his Surrey home in November 2012.

Financial firm Hermitage Capital Management has previously claimed that Mr Perepilichnyy could have been deliberately killed for helping it uncover a multimillion-pound fraud involving Russian officials.

The businessman's death was originally attributed to natural causes but traces of a chemical that can be found in the poisonous plant Gelsemium elegans were later found in his stomach.

The Home Secretary argued at London's High Court that revealing secret documents at the inquest - which will have to decide whether Mr Perepilichnyy died of natural causes or was unlawfully killed - would damage the public interest.

Mr Justice Cranston, sitting in London, said he had "no hesitation" in finding the balance came down in favour of non-disclosure and ruled the Home Secretary was entitled to a public-interest immunity (PII) certificate.

The judge said there were no cogent reasons for rejecting the Home Secretary's view "that there would be real and significant damage to national security from disclosure".

The inquest proceedings are before Richard Travers, senior coroner for Surrey, and a full hearing is due in March and is expected to last three to four weeks.

The judge said Mr Travers' position is now "untenable" because he does not have the necessary security clearance to see the sensitive material covered by the PII ruling.

The judge said: "It is for the chief coroner to arrange a replacement who is able to view the sensitive material and continue the inquest."

The new coroner would need to keep the PII question under review - and also consider "whether a public inquiry is needed".

The PII ruling means that all members of the public and members of Mr Perepilichnyy's family, or family lawyers without the necessary security clearance, will be denied access to a whole raft of documents.

A pre-inquest hearing was told that before his death Mr Perepilichnyy was helping Hermitage uncover a 230 million US dollar (£150 million) Russian money laundering operation.

That hearing was told he could have been the victim of a ''reprisal killing'' in Britain linked to the deaths of Alexander Litvinenko and lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, whose 2009 death in a Russian prison prompted claims he was beaten and then denied medical treatment.

Hermitage's lawyer Henrietta Hill QC claimed Mr Perepilichnyy had been on an underworld ''hit list'' and had received death threats.

There was a ''clear parallel'' between his death and that of Mr Magnitsky, who also worked for London-based Hermitage and died in prison in 2009, she said.

At the High Court, Mr Justice Cranston described how the inquest first opened before Surrey Coroner's Court in April 2014 and had suffered a series of delays.

There had been 12 pre-inquest reviews, which had drawn keen media interest, and the gathering of about 5,000 pages of documents, plus submissions and correspondence with the interested parties.

Those parties included Mr Perepilichnyy's widow, Tatiana Perepilichnaya, as well as Hermitage Capital, the Chief Constable of Surrey Police and Legal and General Assurance Society.

The judge said: "A ccording to information provided by Mr Perepilichnyy to Swiss prosecutors before his death, Hermitage was used by senior Russian officials to perpetrate a multi-million dollar tax fraud against the Russian Treasury and Hermitage.

"Legal and General's interest is that it issued a substantial life insurance policy to Mr Perepilichnyy shortly before his death.

"Both Hermitage and Legal and General have suggested that Mr Perepilichnyy might have been murdered, possibly by agents of the Russian State."

During the course of his investigations, coroner Mr Travers had required both the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary " to produce material which he considered might be relevant.

"Material was produced but some of it was sensitive. The coroner does not have security clearance to view this material.

"Consequently, he decided that he was not in a position to decide the Secretary of S tate's application that it not be publicly disclosed and ordered the Secretary of State to make an application for public interest immunity (PII) to the High Court."

The judge said Peter Skelton QC was instructed to act as counsel to the inquest because he had "developed vetting security clearance" (DV), the highest level of clearance, which allowed access to sensitive material and attendance at any "closed" hearings at the inquest.

The judge explained that senior coroners were not by virtue of their office regarded as DV cleared - unlike High Court judges and circuit judges.

After ruling that a new coroner would have to be appointed with the appropriate security clearance, the judge rejected arguments that that could lead to further delay.

He said: "The new coroner will have the assistance of Mr Skelton, as counsel to the inquest, who has seen all the evidence including the sensitive material."

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