In 2000, after accusing his KGB employers of trying to kill critics of Putin, Col. Litvinenko fled to Britain, where he became one such critic. By way of counterargument, six years later they killed him.
The murder was weak as far as rhetorical devices go, but it did open up a largely redundant whodunit debate. It’s redundant because the method used by the murderers leaves no reasonable doubt of their identity.
Litvinenko was killed by a diabolical compound polonium-210, appropriately discovered by a communist, Marie Skłodowska–Curie, and named after her native country. Such weapons aren’t to be bought at a pub in South London; only some governments have access to them. And the ancient cui bono principle points at only one government with a vested interest in Col. Litvinenko’s death.
In fact, traces of polonium led investigators to another old KGB hand Andrei Lugovoy, who had had tea with his wayward colleague at a Grosvenor Square hotel shortly before Litvinenko’s horrific illness. Yet Lugovoy was unavailable for comment for he had hastily fled back to Moscow.
Half-hearted extradition requests by HMG were turned down by the KGB… sorry, how silly of me, Russia’s government is what I meant. And in the unlikely event such requests ever became more insistent, Lugovoy was ‘elected’ to the Duma, Russia’s ‘parliament’, thereby becoming eligible for parliamentary immunity. (I had to use quotation commas in the previous sentence, for no true elections are possible in Putin’s Russia, and providing a krysha for criminals is its parliament’s principal function.)
Some diplomatic tension ensued, a few diplomats were recalled, harsh words were exchanged. A couple of weeks later it was back to normal, with the Foreign Office restoring its generally benevolent stance towards Russia. ‘One of those things, old boy, what? A bit rough if you ask me, but let Russians be Russians, I say.’
But Litvinenko’s widow Marina wouldn’t let bygones be bygones. Her tireless efforts to find the truth have finally led to a full-blown inquest into her husband’s death. After all, he was a British subject murdered on British soil, and, for old times’ sake if nothing else, HMG couldn’t easily sweep the whole thing under the carpet.
At the preliminary hearing, Mrs Litvinenko’s representative Ben Emerson, QC, enunciated her belief that the Kremlin was to blame: ‘If that hypothesis were to be eventually substantiated, this would be an act of state-sponsored nuclear terrorism in the streets of London.’
Quite. It was very lawyerly of Mr Emerson to refer to the accusation as merely a hypothesis – people used to be strung up on considerably less evidence. But then his profession has its own language, based on the assumption that the shortest distance between two points is a zigzag.
Frankly, I’m not sure what the point of it all is. After all, the inquest is going to cost the taxpayer a lot of money, and nor do QCs come cheap. What kind of outcome would satisfy Mrs Litivinenko and her friends?
It’s already clear that, come what may, justice won’t be served. Lugovoy is still a member of the Duma, that krysha is still as reliable as ever, extradition will still be impossible.
Even if the inquest confirms formally the obvious fact that Col. Lugovoy laced Col. Litvinenko’s tea with polonium, Col. Putin will deny any complicity or indeed knowledge. Those aware of how things work in Russia will tell you that no such action could have been carried out without Putin’s explicit order, but no prima facie evidence of such an order will ever surface. Col. Putin’s professional training taught him to cover his tracks.
Should the inquest find for the truth, the papers will cover the story with front-page headlines. The next day the headlines will become smaller. The day after that they’ll disappear. The reading public’s indignation will be pari pasu attenuated. In a week few people will remember the story, and fewer still will care. Similarly, a few more second counsellors and third attachés will be recalled by both sides and replaced with their carbon copies. Have I left anything out?
But if the judges, driven by the same professional ethic that obligates Mr Emerson to refer to a fact as a hypothesis, fail to rule in favour of the truth, this will be a feather in Col. Putin’s peaked KGB cap. He’ll doff it and bow sarcastically in the general direction of London.
If he himself were on trial, I bet his criminal record wouldn’t be admissible. But outside the courtroom it’s useful to remember that Putin has rich form in bumping off those who disagree with him. At least 40 journalists have been murdered in Russia during his tenure, with countless others beaten within an inch of their lives.
I won’t bore you with a complete roll call, and neither shall I name the numerous human-rights campaigners, lawyers and political activists murdered or roughed up by Putin’s thugs. If I did, we’d be here all night. In any case, even those who realise anyway that Putin didn’t learn his manners from Debrett’s Etiquette for Young Ladies would shrug their shoulders. So he’s a murderous tyrant. We do business with enough of those, so what else is new?
In spite of all that, I wish Mrs Litvinenko good luck with the inquest. Don’t ask me why, I just do.