Wow. It turns out state-sponsored murder isn’t always just a paranoid conspiracy theory…
On 1st November 2006, at the Millennium Hotel in London, ex-Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko – who fled to London in 2000 – took tea with fellow former agents Andrey Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun.
It’s said that Lugovoi and Kovtun were helping Litvinenko investigate the presence of Russian gangsters in Spain. Litvinenko allegedly had knowledge of links between those gangsters and the Russian government. Lugovoi and Kovtun met with Litvinenko several times in October, and Lugovoi was due to fly to Spain with him in November.
But at their November 1st meeting, Lugovoi and Kovtun double-agented Litvinenko and put a radioactive poison called polonium in his tea. Litvinenko was taken ill and hospitalised that day, dying pretty slowly and horribly over the course of 3 weeks.
Fingering the suspects: Lugovoi and Kovtun
Police discovered a ‘hot’ teapot at the Millennium Hotel with an off-the-charts reading for polonium, and suspicion immediately fell on Andrey Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun.
Interestingly, traces of polonium were discovered in all three London hotels where Lugovoi had stayed, in a restaurant where he’d dined and on the two planes he’d travelled on. Then, when he returned to Moscow following Litvinenko’s hospitalisation, he was treated for radiation poisoning.
German police found traces of polonium at the Hamburg flat where Kovtun had been staying. And in his car. And in the planes he flew on. And on the couch he slept on in his ex-wife’s apartment. Lo and behold he was treated for radiation poisoning too.
Kovtun and Lugovoi both denied having anything to do with Litvinenko’s murder. Kovtun said he must’ve been contaminated by Litvinenko – rather than the other way round. However, Litvinenko was not contaminated until the meeting on 1st November. Kovtun and Lugovoi clearly had polonium on them before this, because they were leaving traces of it everywhere.
Nuclear scientist Nick Priest said that the choice of polonium was a “stroke of genius”, since it can be carried in a vial in water and will go undetected by airport screening devices. However, just lifting the lid off a vial of polonium will cause radiation to leak. Priest asserted that the executors of the Litvinenko murder plot were probably not experts in radiation protection, nor did they realise that the authorities would be able to detect residual traces. Oops.
The Crown Prosecution Service accused both Kovtun and Lugovoi of Litvinenko’s murder and called for their extradition to England to stand trial. Russia refused to extradite them.
Conspiracy theories burgeoned, of course, most of them pointing the finger at the Kremlin and Russian president Vladimir Putin. As it happens, the 2015 public inquiry into Litvinenko’s death concluded just days ago that Litvinenko’s murder was orchestrated by the Russian secret service. They also concluded that the hit was “probably” personally approved by Putin.
Ha. Seems the conspiracy theorists were bang on.
The motive? Basically Litvinenko was a pain in Putin’s arse
Before fleeing from Russia to England, Litvinenko – then an officer of the Russian secret service – had publicly accused his superiors of ordering the assassination of Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky.
After Litvinenko came to England, he wrote two books accusing the Russian secret service of staging acts of terrorism in order to bring about Vladimir Putin’s rise to power. Just weeks before he was poisoned, he accused Putin of assassinating Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who had been shot at her Moscow apartment on 6th October 2006. Then of course there’s Litvinenko’s aforementioned investigations into Putin’s links with organised crime and Russian gangsters in Spain.
No brainer, really. The Kremlin needed to shut him up. Commentator Paul Joyal said forebodingly:
“A message has been communicated to anyone who wants to speak out against the Kremlin… If you do, no matter who you are, where you are, we will find you, and we will silence you in the most horrible way possible.”
The 2015 public inquiry’s conclusions are yet another blow to the continually souring relations between the UK and Putin’s government. They also lend credence to the idea that state-sponsored murder can and does happen, and that some government conspiracy theories are right on the money.
Next week: the “Paul is Dead” conspiracy rises again