Alexander Litvinenko: polonium poisoning death explained, as court rules Russia behind murder of former spy

European court says Russia was responsible for the former spy’s death

Former Russian security agent Alexander Litvinenko in his hospital bedFormer Russian security agent Alexander Litvinenko in his hospital bed
Former Russian security agent Alexander Litvinenko in his hospital bed

Russia was responsible for the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled.

Former Russian spy Mr Litvinenko died after being poisoned with a rare radioactive substance in London in 2006.

A statement on the court’s ruling on Tuesday said: “Russia was responsible for assassination of Aleksandr Litvinenko in the UK.”

Russia has always denied any involvement in his death.

Who was Alexander Litvinenko?

Mr Litvinenko had worked for the Soviet and Russian security, namely the KGB and later the FSB. 

In November 1998 he went public with allegations that he had been asked to examine the possibility of assassinating a wealthy businessman. He was fired from the security service and fled from Russia.

In 2001 he and his family were granted asylum in the UK. They later gained British citizenship and changed their names. Mr Litvinenko became involved in exposing corruption and links to organised crime in the Russian intelligence services.

How did he die and what were the circumstances?

Mr Litvinenko died on 23 November, 2006 after drinking tea laced with radioactive polonium-210.

The judgement from the court says that in October 2006 Andrey Lugovoy, an acquaintance of Mr Litvinenko, visited London three times, each time in the company of Dmitriy Kovtun. During the first visit on 16 October 2006, a meeting took place between Mr Lugovoy, Mr Kovtun and Mr Litvinenko and others and they went together to dinner.

Mr Litvinenko vomited later that night and was ill for two days. Mr Lugovoy and Mr Kovtun’s hotel room was later found to contain significant polonium contamination, with signs pointing to the substance having been poured down the sink plughole.

Further evidence of polonium contamination was found in areas the pair had visited in London.

After a second visit from 25 to 28 October, 2006 by Mr Lugovoy a pattern of polonium contamination consistent with accidental spillage was detected in his hotel room.

On 31 October 2006 Mr Lugovoy and Mr Kovtun returned to London for a third time. The following day they met with Mr Litvinenko, drinking tea in their hotel bar.

Traces of polonium were found, including in the teapot and the men’s toilets, which had been used by the former two but not by Mr Litvinenko.

Mr Litvinenko took ill in early November 2006 and was admitted to hospital. After his death the cause was given as acute radiation syndrome due to very high levels of polonium 210.

What is polonium 210?

Originally known as Radium F, polonium 210 was discovered in the early 1900s. It occurs naturally in the earth’s crust at low levels, and is extremely toxic.

It is among the most radiotoxic substances to humans.

One microgram is more than enough to kill the average adult, however it is not a hazard to the outside of the body.

How was Vladimir Putin and the Russian government involved?

After Mr Litvinenko’s death Mr Putin remarked: “Mr Litvinenko is, unfortunately, not Lazarus.”

A public inquiry concluded in 2016 that the killing of Mr Litvinenko – an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin had “probably” been carried out with the approval of the Russian president.

Headed by the former high court judge Sir Robert Owen, the inquiry found two Russian men – Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun – had deliberately poisoned Mr Litvinenko by putting polonium-210 into his drink at a London hotel, leading to an agonising death.

It said the use of the radioactive substance – which could only have come from a nuclear reactor – was a “strong indicator” of state involvement and that the two men had probably been acting under the direction of the Russian security service the FSB – which Mr Litvinenko used to work for, as well as the KGB.

Possible motives included Mr Litvinenko’s work for British intelligence agencies after fleeing Russia, his criticism of the FSB, and his association with other Russian dissidents, while it said there was also a “personal dimension” to the antagonism between him and Mr Putin.

Why was there a court case?

Alexander Litvinenko (right) with his wife Marina on his wedding day Alexander Litvinenko (right) with his wife Marina on his wedding day
Alexander Litvinenko (right) with his wife Marina on his wedding day

The case was brought by Litvinenko’s widow Marina Litvinenko, who had vowed to get justice for her husband and pursue the Kremlin through the international courts.

The statement on the European court’s ruling said: “The Court found in particular that there was a strong prima facie case that, in poisoning Mr Litvinenko, Mr Lugovoy and Mr Kovtun had been acting as agents of the Russian State. It noted that the Government had failed to provide any other satisfactory and convincing explanation of the events or counter the findings of the UK inquiry.

“The Court also found that the Russian authorities had not carried out an effective domestic investigation capable of leading to the establishment of the facts and, where appropriate, the identification and punishment of those responsible for the murder.”

Mrs Litvinenko told Sky News: “It’s important that Russia takes responsibility”, adding: “We must not give up the fight against this anti-democratic regime in Russia.”

Russia has been ordered by the court to pay Mrs Litvinenko 100,000 euro (£85,600) in damages and 22,500 euro (£19,300) in cost and expenses.

Mrs Litvinenko said she did not know whether she would be paid the money, but that she still hopes to bring the people responsible for her husband’s death to justice in the UK.

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