UK

UK Will Hold Public Enquiry Into Whether Russia Killed Polonium-Poisoned Spy Alexander Litvinenko

22/07/2014 09:10 BST | Updated 22/07/2014 16:59 BST

The UK is to hold a much longed-for public inquiry into the poisoning of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, Theresa May has announced.

The enquiry is set to ask if the Russian state is responsible for the death of Litvinenko, an ex- KGB spy, who died in 2006 in London after he was apparently poisoned with deadly, radioactive polonium.

Marina Litvinenko, the widow of the dissident known as 'Sasha' to his loved ones, said today in a statement released through her lawyers: "I am relieved and delighted with this decision. It sends a message to Sasha's murderers: no matter how strong and powerful you are, truth will win out in the end and you will be held accountable for your crimes.

"It has taken nearly eight years to bring those culpable for Sasha's murder to justice. I look forward to the day when the truth behind my husband's murder is revealed for the whole world to see."

Home Secretary Theresa May announced the probe in a written ministerial statement today, saying: "I very much hope that this inquiry will be of some comfort to his widow."

Litvinenko, 43, was poisoned with radioactive polonium-210 while drinking tea at the Millennium Hotel in London's Grosvenor Square in 2006. His family believes he was working for MI6 at the time and was killed on the orders of the Kremlin. Former KGB bodyguard Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun have been identified as the prime suspects, but both deny any involvement and remain in Russia.

In July last year, the UK government rejected a request for a public enquiry into the murder. That request came from his widow Marina, who accused the coroner of abandoning "his search for the truth about Russian state responsibility for her husband's death".

Coroner Sir Robert Owen had said he could not hear in public evidence linked to the alleged involvement of the Russian government. He wrote to the Justice Secretary requesting that a public inquiry was held in place of the inquest, but it was turned down. Sir Robert said he could not hold a "fair and fearless" investigation as part of an inquest.

Ben Emmerson QC, representing Mrs Litvinenko, told the hearing that the Government had shown an "utter lack of professionalism" in the way it handled the request for a public inquiry.

"The repeated catalogue of broken promises is a sign of something gone awry," he said.

"The arrangements for the inquiry will now be a matter for Sir Robert Owen," May said on Tuesday. "I am very grateful to Sir Robert for continuing to lead the independent judicial investigation into Mr Litvinenko's death. It is more than seven years since Mr Litvinenko's death, and I very much hope that this inquiry will be of some comfort to his widow Mrs Litvinenko."

The terms of reference for the probe are "to conduct an investigation into the death of Alexander Litvinenko in order to ascertain who the deceased was; how, when and where he came by his death; identify where responsibility for the death lies and make appropriate recommendations".

But because there is no evidence to suggest that Litvinenko "was or ought to have been assessed as being at a real and immediate threat to his life", the probe will not examine "the question of whether the UK authorities could or should have taken steps which would have prevented the death."