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European court finds Russia responsible for death of former spy

The European Court of Human Rights ruled it is clear the Russian state was behind the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 using a radioactive substance. But a Russian judge on the court vehemently disagreed with that clear-cut conclusion.

(CN) — Basing its conclusion on a British public inquiry into the fatal 2006 poisoning of former Russian spy and defector Alexander Litvinenko, the European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday ruled that Russia was responsible for his death and should pay his widow damages.

The Strasbourg-based court condemned Russia for not assisting British investigators in their work, resisting demands to extradite two Russian suspects accused in Litvinenko's death and not properly conducting its own probes into the murder.

It ordered Russia to pay Litvinenko's widow 100,000 euros (about $117,000) in damages and 22,500 euros (about $26,000) in costs and expenses.

His widow, Marina Litvinenko, took Russia to the human rights court over her husband's killing, which caused an international scandal and an outpouring of anti-Russian sentiment as images of a dying Litvinenko were beamed around the world.

“It has taken 15 years to establish conclusively that Vladimir Putin murdered my husband, and to hold Russia accountable for its actions in an international court,” she said, according to The Guardian newspaper. “This ruling should make a turning point in the appeasement of Putin.”

The Kremlin rejected the court's findings and said it would not pay Marina Litvinenko for damages. Russia has long disputed the facts surrounding Litvenenko's death and denied any involvement. Russia's intelligence services are accused of a series of assassinations and attempted assassinations in recent years.

The court's finding will further fuel dangerous tensions between the West and Russia and came on the same day that British intelligence officials said they had evidence a third man was involved in a separate alleged poisoning of a former Russian double agent and his daughter, Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Both poisonings took place in the United Kingdom.

Adding intrigue and casting doubt on Tuesday's decision against Russia, a Russian judge sitting on the seven-judge panel of the European Court of Human Rights wrote a scathing, and vehemently pro-Russian, dissenting opinion that challenged the impartiality of the British investigation into Litvinenko's death that served as the basis for the Strasbourg court's ruling. He even suggested British intelligence agents may have been behind Litvinenko's death.

Litvinenko died in November 2006 after he was allegedly poisoned with polonium 210, a radioactive substance. British authorities accused two Russian men with past ties to Russia's intelligence services as being behind the killing.

A 2016 British public inquiry concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin likely ordered Litvinenko's assassination.

Litvinenko was a former agent for the Soviet and Russian secret services – the KGB and the FSB, respectively – who defected to the United Kingdom, where he and his family were granted asylum in 2001. He and his wife changed their names to Edwin Redwald Carter and Maria Anna Carter.

Litvinenko was a critic of Russia's intelligence services and accused them of having links to organized crime. He allegedly also worked with British, Spanish and Italian authorities, advising them on Russian organized crime and spy operations in Europe, the rights court said.

Andrey Lugovoy, a longtime acquaintance of Litvinenko, and Dmitry Kovtun were accused by British investigators of carrying out an assassination order against Litvinenko. The men met Litvinenko in London on the day he fell ill, allegedly after he drank tea poisoned with polonium in their hotel bar.

They allegedly tried to poison Litvenenko on previous occasions in October during visits to London. British investigators found traces of polonium in hotel rooms where the two men stayed and said it appeared the deadly substance was poured down a sink in their hotel room. Traces of polonium were found in other places where the two men went, including a restaurant where they dined, in a room where they had met Litvinenko in October, in a soccer stadium where they watched a game and on an airplane they took back to Moscow.

Marina Litvinenko, widow of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, reads a statement outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London in 2016. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)

Litvenenko fell ill on Nov. 2, 2006, with vomiting, abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea. He was transferred to a hospital the next day and doctors determined he had been poisoned by chemotherapeutic agents or radioisotopes. He died on Nov. 23 from acute radiation syndrome caused by very high levels of polonium 210.

“The circumstances of Mr. Litvinenko’s death are no longer a 'matter of speculation and assumption,'” Tuesday's ruling states.

The court said there are no doubts that he was poisoned with polonium by Lugovoy and Kovtun, who were acting on behalf of the Russian state.

“The evidence of premeditation strongly indicates that the death of Mr. Litvinenko had been the result of a planned and complex operation,” the ruling states.

The rights court said the two men “were not acting on their own initiative” and that “there was no evidence that either man had any personal reason to kill Mr. Litvinenko.”

“The use of polonium 210 strongly indicates that Mr. Lugovoy and Mr. Kovtun were acting with the support of a State entity which enabled them to procure the poison,” the ruling states. “A radioactive isotope was an unlikely murder weapon for common criminals and must have come from a reactor under state control.”

The court said the motives behind the killing “pointed to state involvement” as the “only tenable” theory. It added that the evidence points to Lugovoy and Kovtun “acting under the direction of the Russian security service.”

The court said it was Russia's responsibility to investigate the allegations but that it did not make “any serious attempt either to elucidate the facts or to counter the findings arrived at by the United Kingdom authorities.”

Russia rejected the findings of British investigators and declined to extradite Lugovoy and Kovtun, citing the Russian constitution which forbids Russian nationals from being extradited.

Lugovoy later became a member of the State Duma, Russia's lower chamber of parliament, and was afforded parliamentary immunity. The Strasbourg court said Russia could have extradited the two men and stripped Lugovoy of immunity.

But the court's findings were called into question by Judge Dmitry Dedov, the court's Russian representative. He has served on the court since 2013. Each of the 47 nations that recognize the rights court get a single judge, who are elected by a parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, a human rights organization.

Dedov's dissenting opinion was a scathing attack on the Strasbourg court's finding and evocative of the Cold War; it also revealed the huge chasm between Russia and Western European nations when it comes to interpreting the facts in major international incidents. Both sides often accuse the other side of engaging in lies, conspiracy theories and duplicity.

“I found many deficiencies in the analysis by the British inquiry and by the court which raise reasonable doubts as to the involvement of the suspects in the poisoning and whether they were acting as agents of the state,” he wrote.

Dedov said the U.K. “refused to cooperate” with Russia and give it access to its investigation files. He said Russia was denied “basic evidence confirming that the victim had been poisoned by polonium.”

He also criticized British investigators for refusing to turn over polonium samples to allow Russian investigators to see if the radioactive substance came from Russian sources; he said British investigators failed to prove the polonium was produced in Russia; he faulted the U.K. for not turning over the forensic medical report and other material “which could have constituted a basis for opening a criminal case against the 'suspects'” by Russian authorities.

He questioned the British inquiry's quick dispatch of any “theories other than the main one.”

“This raises doubts from the very beginning as to the impartiality of the British investigation,” he wrote.

He also pointed to a lack of polonium contamination on the airport bus and airplane that the suspects took from Moscow to London as casting doubt on the theory they were carrying the radioactive substance with them.

As for the traces of polonium in their hotel rooms, he questioned that finding too, suggesting instead that British spies were tracking them and may have tried to make it look like the Russian men attempted to get rid of the polonium.

“I wonder myself whether the suspects could really have been so careless and reckless, since they allegedly knew that they were in possession of polonium,” he wrote. He said they would have known that “if it was poured down the sink, the traces of the poison would remain detectable for a period of six months.”

He said it would have been “more prudent to keep the polonium in a container preserving it from detection at airports (this could have been a small glass jar) and to throw it into a rubbish bin on a street far away from the hotel.”

Perhaps, he said, someone had placed the poison where they had stayed as “a way of planting evidence against the 'suspects'.”

He blasted the British inquiry as being based “on the statements of witnesses who specialize in conspiracy theories undermining the reputation of the Russian authorities (especially the Russian intelligence service) and portraying them as the devil.”

“I am not surprised that a British judge would find the Russian, not British, intelligence service responsible for the poisoning,” he wrote. “But again, this raises the questions of double standards, independence and impartiality of the inquiry.”

Dedov also questioned whether Lugovoy and Kovtun could have been working for the FSB because they had ended their work with the spy agency in the 1990s. He said Lugovoy was interested in “developing private security services in Russia and limiting the State’s influence in this field.”

He said that it seemed that “the Cold War has never ended” for the British intelligence services, noting that no British prime minister has declared an end to the Cold War, which Winston Churchill declared decades ago.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow Cain Burdeau on Twitter

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