Britain accuses businessman of killing ex-spy

Showdown expected with Russia over extradition in poisoning case

May 23, 2007|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,Sun Foreign Reporter

MOSCOW -- British prosecutors said yesterday that they have sufficient evidence to charge a former member of the KGB with the brazen murder of former spy Alexander Litvinenko, whose death by radiation poisoning in London last fall prompted finger-pointing in all directions - including at the Russian president.

The British Crown Prosecution Service said it would seek Andrei Lugovoi's extradition from Moscow for a murder trial in London. The one-time KGB bodyguard-turned-businessman met with Litvinenko on the day he fell ill in November.

But the stage was immediately set for a diplomatic showdown between Britain and Russia, whose relations have frayed, in part over the poisoning investigation, in recent months. The Russian prosecutor's office has repeatedly said it will not extradite any suspects in the case to Britain because Russian law prevents it.

Yesterday, Lugovoi denied involvement in Litvinenko's murder, as he has all along. According to Russian news reports, he referred to the charges against him as "purely political" and said he was "dumbfounded by this bias and injustice."

"I think the decision of the Crown Prosecution Service is purely political," Lugovoi said, the Itar-Tass news agency reported. "I didn't kill Litvinenko, and I don't have anything to do with his death."

He also hinted, obscurely, at public statements he said he intends to make in the coming days that will, in his words, cause a "sensation" in Britain and "bring about a radical change in assessments of the events" there.

Meanwhile, Litvinenko's widow, Marina, filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, over the matter of extradition - even while officials in Moscow insisted that any Russian citizen who commits a crime in a foreign state could only be prosecuted in Russia.

A spokeswoman for the prosecutor general's office, Marina Gridneva, was quoted in news media reports as saying that such a prosecution could take place "only if the Russian side accepts evidence offered by that foreign state as sufficient and the offense is a crime under Russian legislation."

Russian investigators are carrying out their own investigation and have so far received no evidence from their British counterparts.

The case of Litvinenko's poisoning had all the makings of a Soviet-era spy thriller, with traces of the rare radioactive isotope polonium-210 found not only in the London hotel restaurant where Litvinenko and Lugovoi met but also on several Russian airliners and even at the British Embassy in Moscow.

It included a sensational deathbed missive, purportedly written by Litvinenko, in which he accused Russian President Vladimir V. Putin of being behind his poisoning.

And it spawned conspiracy theories of all kinds.

One held that the Kremlin was behind the killing of Litvinenko, who previously worked for the KGB and its domestic successor, the FSB, but who later fled Russia and became an increasingly strident critic of Putin.

Another said that he was killed by someone who wished to make it look as if he had been killed by the Kremlin - possibly the oligarch Boris Berezovsky, another vocal Putin opponent who was granted asylum in Britain and is the subject of a Russian extradition request in connection with fraud charges, among other things.

It was even suggested in some Russian news media that Litvinenko was killed accidentally while working on a nuclear bomb for Chechen rebels, or while smuggling radioactive materials.

The Kremlin has dismissed allegations of its involvement in Litvinenko's death as outlandish. Neither the Kremlin nor Putin made any public comment yesterday.

British authorities had considered Lugovoi a "person of interest" virtually from the start. Along with another associate, Dmitry Kovtun, who also was questioned in the case but has not been charged, Lugovoi met with Litvinenko at the Millennium Hotel in central London on Nov. 1. Litvinenko died about three weeks later, on Nov. 23.

Ken Macdonald, director of public prosecutions at the Crown Prosecution Service, said police investigators conducted a "careful investigation" into Litvinenko's death.

"Among the people of interest to police in this inquiry was a Russian citizen named Andrei Lugovoi," he said.

In late January, police investigators sent an evidence file to officials at the Crown Prosecution Service, who, in turn, "carefully considered" the material, Macdonald said.

"I have today concluded that the evidence sent to us by the police is sufficient to charge Andrei Lugovoi with the murder of Mr. Litvinenko by deliberate poisoning," he said. "I have instructed CPS lawyers to take immediate steps to seek the early extradition of Andrei Lugovoi from Russia to the United Kingdom, so that he may be charged with murder - and be brought swiftly before a court in London to be prosecuted for this extraordinarily grave crime."

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