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18 May 2024

Litvinenko murder: Inquest likely to delay further


A long-delayed inquest into the poisoning death of former Russian intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko will likely not start on schedule, the British judge overseeing the case said Tuesday.

Litvinenko, a Russian agent turned Kremlin critic, died in London in November 2006 after drinking tea laced with the radioactive isotope polonium-210.

Lawyers for his family say that at the time of his death he was working for the British intelligence services, and Britain accuses two Russians of the killing. Moscow authorities refuse to extradite them for trial.

The inquest was due to start May 1. But coroner Robert Owen said he was "becoming increasingly concerned that due to the complexity of the investigation which necessarily precedes the hearings, that may be a timetable to which it may not be possible to adhere."

At a court hearing on Tuesday, British media organisations challenged a government bid to hold parts of the inquest in secret for security reasons.

Government lawyer Neil Sheldon said that "the disclosure of the material in question would pose a real risk to the public interest."

But Ben Emmerson, lawyer for Litvinenko's widow Marina, said the government's quest for secrecy was delaying proceedings.

"We know nothing about why these applications are being made and we are dancing in the dark," he said.

In Britain, inquests are held to determine the facts whenever someone dies violently, unexpectedly or in disputed circumstances.

The Litvinenko process has been delayed until now because, for a long time, officials thought there was a chance the Russian suspects could be prosecuted. But last year, it became clear that the UK would not be able to put the two suspects on trial.

Emmerson said Marina Litvinenko was "extremely disappointed" by the prospect of further delays.

"Not as disappointed as me," Owen said.