The British inquiry into the 2006 death of Alexander Litvinenko has taken a dramatic turn in direction. Just two months ago the London coroner appeared focused on investigating alleged Russian state involvement in the death, and on steadfastly upholding MI5/MI6 secrecy about the case.
But a November 2 hearing conducted by coroner Sir Robert Owen has thrown things wide open. Earlier he seemed intent only on following a trail back to Moscow. Now, he’s apparently changed his mind. Multiple additional theories of culpability have been put on the table, including that of the British state.
The Litvinenko affair has been a high-profile international murder mystery ever since the subject’s death by poisoning in London. Accusations that Russian president Vladimir Putin was behind it fueled intense media attention. The general storyline is that Litvinenko was a former spy murdered by radioactive polonium on orders of Putin, who allegedly wanted him silenced.
Careful independent analysis, however, has shown that the mainstream media narrative of the case was fabricated and has no factual basis. It’s never been officially determined that Litvinenko was even murdered. And, there’s no reliable evidence that he was ever a spy. The media accounts on those issues are specious.
It has been reported that the manufactured story was spread by people connected to Boris Berezovsky. They apparently concocted the tale of espionage, revenge, and murder, and fed it to unsuspecting media outlets hungry for a juicy story. I’ve documented all this in my book, The Phony Litvinenko Murder (www.omnicompress.com/plm).
Berezovsky is a wealthy arch-enemy of Putin’s who resides in London, hiding from criminal convictions back in Russia. He is an erstwhile Putin ally turned outspoken critic. Berezovsky is reported to be organizing a revolution to overthrow Putin by force and replace the constitution.
Perhaps it should be no surprise that the London coroner has done a turnabout in the death inquiry. The Litvinenko case has been full of unexpected twists and turns. At first, Litvinenko said he believed an Italian named Mario Scaramella had poisoned him. Then after Litvinenko died, a well publicized deathbed statement appeared accusing Putin. Alexander Goldfarb, an associate of Berezovsky’s, claimed Litvinenko dictated it to him on his deathbed. Later, Goldfarb confessed it was he who wrote the words, not Litvinenko.
In 2011, then coroner Andrew Reid had ruled that “the whole purpose of the inquest is to investigate the credibility of the competing theories.” But the only theory given prominence was Berezovsky’s contention that Putin was behind the alleged murder. In an August 2012 civil decision involving Berezovsky, the High Court judge ruled that Berezovsky is ‘inherently unreliable.’ Wouldn’t that mean that his theory in the Litvinenko case could not be relied upon?
That left things looking like there was really no reason for the inquest. If there were no competing theories to investigate, why were the British going to spend a reported $6 million on a seemingly pointless inquest? Was there an ulterior motive?
Now that the inquiry is wide open, what could explain the marked change in direction? The previous hearing held on September 20 seemingly affirmed a demand for a “criminal investigation of the Russian state.” No other specific targets of investigation were mentioned.
At the November hearing, however, a long list of possible targets suddenly appeared. It includes: Mario Scaramella, Boris Berezovsky, the Spanish Mafia, Chechen-related groups, and the British state itself. The coroner will also consider whether suicide or an accident might be involved. What a change from just suspecting Putin!
Even the transcript of that hearing, however, provided no clues as to why the hyper focus on Russia was dropped.
One possible intervening event did occur between the September and November hearings. An October article in Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russia’s largest newspaper, accused the coroner’s inquiry of appearing rigged against Russia.
In the article, Alexei Pankin, one of the country’s most distinguished journalists, interviewed me on the results of my research. I explained how the original coroner on the case, Andrew Reid, had been suspiciously removed from the inquiry. I also described collusive-appearing intersections between the prosecutor who formulated Britain’s allegations of Russian state involvement, and people connected to Berezovsky.
There had been no explanation of why after six years there hadn’t been a conclusion on whether or not Litvinenko’s death was a homicide, I pointed out, adding, “I would be very surprised if the coroner arrives at an honest verdict. The inquest procedure has telltale signs of being rigged.”
That Komsomolskaya Pravda interview was also picked up internationally by several prominent English language news outlets.
Less than two weeks later, Coroner Owen surprisingly threw open the scope of the inquiry. Suddenly there is a multitude of competing theories ripe for investigation, not just Berezovsky’s. The exclusively Russian focus is gone. Owen understandably may not want to follow in Reid’s footsteps.
It’s curious that Reid had focused on such a narrow scope. At his October 2011 hearing he seemed to proclaim a mandate to investigate “the alleged criminal role of the Russian state.” But the charter of the coroner’s office specifically forbids it from determining criminal liability.
It is clear that the Berezovsky camp is pushing for the coroner to pursue the Russian state. The widow Litvinenko, who is closely associated with Berezovsky, urged Coroner Owen to endorse Reid’s position. But Owen demurred, saying “the scope is a matter that I have continually to review in the light of the information and material that I see.” Perhaps Reid had been bamboozled into undertaking an investigation that was not his business. Good for Owen for getting straight on that one.
William Dunkerley is a media business analyst and consultant based in New Britain, CT. He works extensively with media organizations in Russia and other post-communist countries, and has advised government leaders on strategies for building press freedom and a healthy media sector. He is a Senior Fellow at the American University in Moscow.