Enemies of Putin gather for a burial in exile
Published 08/12/2006 | 10:48
On a wooded hilltop overlooking his city of exile, in the pouring rain of an English winter's afternoon, Alexander Litvinenko was buried yesterday.
But any thoughts that the controversy that has engulfed the extraordinary death of the former KGB lieutenant colonel would also be laid to rest were soon banished. For here assembled around the muddy graveside in the ornate Victorian necropolis of Highgate Cemetery, the last resting place of Karl Marx, were some of the Kremlin's most outspoken opponents.
Yet it was not the spectre of communism past that haunted the proceedings in north London, it was Russia's capitalist present, Chechnya and that of Islam too.
Chief among the 50 mourners, who gathered alongside Mr Litvinenko's widow, Marina, and their 12-year-old son, Anatoly, was President Putin's arch rival Boris Berezovsky. The Russian billionaire's presence in London continues to infuriate the Kremlin. Yesterday, he was one of six pallbearers to lower his former ally's oak coffin into the damp earth. The casket had been sealed under the supervision of public health experts.
Joining Mr Berezovsky in the grim task was Akhmed Zakayev, the former Chechen resistance leader now living in London after a long battle against extradition to Moscow. There was also the film-maker Andrei Nekrasov. His 2004 film Disbelief was based on Mr Litvinenko's controversial book claiming that it was the Russian security services that were responsible for the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings which killed 300 people. Mr Putin blamed the atrocities on Islamic rebels and the attacks paved the way for Russia's second bloody Chechen offensive.
During the funeral, Lord John Rea, director of the Save Chechnya campaign, held aloft a picture of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a vehement critic of Mr Putin's actions in Chechnya. Mr Litvinenko was investigating the circumstances of her murder at the time of his own poisoning, he claimed.
Also carrying the coffin was the former Israeli politician Alex Goldfarb, who now chairs Mr Berezovsky's Washington-based International Foundation for Civil Liberties, and has been acting as the Litvinenko family spokesman following the former spy's poisoning by polonium-210.
According to Mr Goldfarb, it had been Mr Litvinenko's wish that the service would be non-religious and non-denominational. "Unfortunately some people appeared and against the explicit wishes of the widow performed Muslim rites over the funeral. We had a choice to turn it into an unseemly situation, but Marina asked us to respect the memory of Alexander and let these people do what they did. Let God be their judge," he said.
Before the ceremony, a small group, led by Mr Litvinenko's father, Walter, said prayers for the dead man at the Central London Mosque in Regent's Park. There, according to Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, head of the Muslim Parliament, passages from the Koran were read and the imam said a special funeral prayer.
Mr Zakayev claimed Mr Litvinenkoswitched faiths to Islam "on his deathbed" - a suggestion rejected by Mr Goldfarb. Mr Siddiqui said the conversion had happened 10 days before he was poisoned. Others claim the former army officer continued to wear a Christian cross until his death.