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Putin slammed in Litvinenko inquiry

Russian president Vladimir Putin should be unmasked as "nothing more than a common criminal dressed as a head of state" by a public inquiry into the death of poisoned spy Alexander Litvinenko, a barrister representing his widow has said.

On the first day of the long-awaited hearing, Ben Emmerson QC, for Marina Litvinenko, said the murder of the Russian spy turned political campaigner was an "act of nuclear terrorism on the streets of a major city".

Held in the Royal Courts of Justice, the inquiry heard that Mr Litvinenko, affectionately known as Sasha, may have been poisoned "not once but twice" with radioactive polonium-210.

And a statement given by the Kremlin critic to Scotland Yard detectives from his hospital bed in the weeks before his death blamed Mr Putin for his demise.

Mr Litvinenko, 43, who is thought to have been working for British secret service MI6 during his time in the UK, died at University College Hospital nearly three weeks after he had consumed tea laced with polonium on November 1 at the Millennium Hotel in London's Grosvenor Square.

He was in the company of prime suspects Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun. Both men deny any involvement and have so far refused to take part in the inquiry.

In an impassioned opening statement, Mr Emmerson told the inquiry: "When all of the open and closed evidence is considered together, Mr Litvinenko's dying declaration will be borne as true, that the trail of polonium traces lead not just from London to Moscow but directly to the door of Vladimir Putin and Mr Putin should be unmasked by this inquiry as a common criminal dressed up as a head of state."

Mr Emmerson said Mr Litvinenko's murder was an "act of unspeakable barbarism".

"It was an act of nuclear terrorism on the streets of a major city which put the lives of numerous other members of the public at risk," he said.

The QC told the inquiry, chaired by Sir Robert Owen, that Mr Livtinenko became a "marked man" in 1998 when he attempted to expose a plot by the Russian intelligence service - the FSB - to kill Russian billionnaire Boris Berezovsky.

Mr Litvinenko, an FSB agent, found the order to be "improper", the inquiry heard. Mr Putin, who was the head of the FSB at the time, was a "ruthless and deadly enemy for Mr Litvinenko to antagonise", Mr Emmerson said.

Mr Litvinenko fled to Britain in 2000 with his wife Marina and son Anatoly to claim asylum.

The family assumed a new identity but the former Russian spy continued to speak out against the FSB and Mr Putin's regime.

Mr Emmerson said a book written by Mr Litvinenko - Blowing Up Russia - exposed an FSB plot to blow up Russian buildings to trigger a second Chechen war.

The QC said this was done "in order to provide a pretext for a Chechen offensive was of course the very military action that swept Vladimir Putin into power".

A second book written by Mr Litvinenko exposed alleged links between Mr Putin and an organised crime gang active in St Petersburg in the mid-nineties when Mr Putin was the deputy mayor of the city.

He had also publicly linked the death of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya's to Mr Putin shortly before he was poisoned.

And he was collaborating with prosecutors investigating alleged links between Russian organised crime and the Kremlin in Spain.

On November 1, after meeting Mr Lugovoi and Mr Kovtun, Mr Litvinenko fell ill and was taken to hospital. He died of radioactive poisoning three weeks later.

Counsel to the inquiry Robin Tam QC revealed that evidence will suggest that Mr Litvinenko was poisoned during two of three meetings he held with the two suspects, on October 16 and November 1 2006.

He recalled feeling unwell and vomiting about two or three weeks before he was taken to hospital, but thought at the time that it might have been food poisoning.

"Hair samples that are available indicate that Mr Litvinenko may well have been poisoned twice and that the first occasion being much less severe than the second," Mr Tam said.

In a statement from his deathbed, Mr Litvinenko accused Mr Putin of being behind his poisoning in a statement. And he told police that he had "no doubt whatsoever" that the Russian secret service were behind the killing, claiming that the order could have only come from Mr Putin.

He told officers: "Yes, they did try to kill me and possibly I might die. But I will die a free person and my son and wife are free people."

Mr Tam said thousands of Britons and tourists were put at risk from the radioactivity emitted by the polonium-210 that killed Mr Litvinenko.

A public health alert was issued when traces of the substance were found in ''large numbers of places across London''.

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.

Sir Robert said that Mr Lugovoi and Mr Kovtun had been invited to give evidence via video link and he hoped they would accept.

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