Alexander Litvinenko was “eliminated” because he was exposing Vladimir Putin’s intimate links with organised crime, a public inquiry into one of the most chilling and extraordinary murders in recent British history heard today.
In an incendiary start to the hearing, the Russian President was charged with unleashing “an act of nuclear terrorism on the streets of a major city” which could have massacred thousands of people to kill Mr Litvinenko, a former KGB agent the Kremlin had come to regard as a traitor.
The act of “unspeakable barbarism”, said Ben Emmerson QC for Mr Litvinenko’s family, was carried out to hide malignant corruption at the highest level of the Russian hierarchy.
“The startling truth which will be revealed by this inquiry is that a significant part of Russian organised crime is organised directly from the offices of the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a mafia state… He had to be eliminated because he had become an enemy of the close-knit group of criminals who surround Putin and keep his corrupt regime in power”, said Mr Emmerson.
“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.”
The inquiry, which began eight years, two months, three weeks and six days after the death of Mr Litvinenko, with the stated aim of finding the truth, was always going to be about much more than a crime. The British Government had fought a long legal action to prevent an inquiry taking place, but changed its mind as relations between Russia and the West began to slide back to the days of the Cold War.
The Home Secretary, Theresa May, finally agreed to the proceedings five days after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine with Kremlin-backed separatists being blamed. The activities of Andri Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtum, accused of administered polonium to Mr Litvinenko, an exiled opponent of the Kremlin, were charted in court. But the man who ordered the execution was none other, it was repeatedly claimed, than the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin.
Mr Emmerson claimed that Mr Litvinenko, as a former officer in the KGB and FSB, “ had blown the whistle on a range of serious wrongdoings by Mr Putin and his allies. He was killed, partly as an act of political revenge for speaking out, partly as a message to others, and partly to prevent him from giving evidence as a witness in a criminal prosecution in Spain – a prosecution which could have exposed President Putin’s link to an organised crime syndicate.”
The start to the inquiry points towards what is likely to lie ahead. The chairman Sir Robert Owen began his opening statement with: “The issues to which the death gives rise are of the utmost gravity and international concern…” All avenues would be explored, including the possibility of a state sponsored assassination, he added.
There will, undoubtedly, be a fierce backlash from Moscow if the inquiry holds Mr Putin and senior figures in the Kremlin responsible for murder.
Mr Litvinenko, an officer in the FSB, had also worked for MI6 and the Spanish security service. Officials in Moscow have accused western security agencies of trying to frame the Russian leadership.
The person who had done the most to set this stage, Mr Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, sat quietly, wrapped in her own grief, as the terrible account of her husband’s lingering death was recounted in Court 73. The hearing would not have taken place without her determination and persistence through the years of what, she felt, was official obstruction and prevarication.
Mr Emmerson said: “No one watching these proceedings should be left in any doubt that if it were not for the courage and commitment shown by Mrs Litvinenko none of us would be standing here today, about to embark on this momentous inquiry.”
Tales about Russian and British intelligence, the Russian mafia and the killing fields of Chechnya were unveiled in the first day of the hearing. Those enmeshed in intrigues included the former Chechen leader Akhmed Zakayev and Boris Berezovsky. Mr Berezovsky, the British-based Russian oligarch – a vehement enemy of Mr Putin who died two years ago – had also been accused at one stage of being involved in the murder of Mr Litvinenko, the inquiry was told.
Over the next two months evidence will be given by former and current intelligence agents, police anti-terrorist officers, nuclear scientists, current affairs analysts, Mrs Litvinenko and other members of the bereaved family.
Mr Lugovoi, a former FSB officer, and Mr Kovtum, who had served in the Russian military, have been invited to give evidence, but so far they have shown no inclination to do so. The Crown Prosecution Service has tried and failed to get the two men extradited from Russia to face trial.
Mr Litvinenko had no doubt who he blamed for what had happened. “It is unusual for a victim of a murder to make a public statement of his own death”, the inquiry counsel Robin Tam QC pointed out. In an interview with the police, the stricken man had stated: “Having knowledge of this system I know that this order about a killing of a citizen from another country on its territory, especially if it is something to do with Great Britain, could have been given only by one person… That person is the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin.
“Of course, now while he is still president you won’t be able to prosecute him, because he is the president of a huge country crammed with nuclear, chemical and bacteriological weapons.”
The implacable enmity towards Mr Litvinenko from his powerful enemies was illustrated, said Mr Emmerson in a video given to the inquiry showing Russian special forces using a photograph of him for target practice.
Two weeks before his death, another attempt had been made to kill Mr Litvinenko with polonium, said Robin Tam QC, counsel for the inquiry, when he had met Mr Lugovoi who was on a visit to London from Moscow.
A witness from Hamburg will state that Mr Kovtum had asked him whether he knew a cook in London who could administer a “ very expensive poison” to Mr Litvinenko – who was “ a traitor with blood on his hand, making deals with Chechens.”
As he lay dying in London’s University College Hospital, a statement was read out on behalf of Mr Litvinenko, the inquiry heard. He said: “As I lie here I can distinctly hear the beatings of the wings of the Angel of Death.
“You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, for the rest of your life. May God forgive you for what you’ve done, not only to me but to beloved Russia and our people.”