23 November, 2009, 09:24
It is three years since former Russian security officer Aleksandr Litvinenko died of polonium poisoning in London.
After Scotland Yard's investigation pointed the finger at Russian businessman Andrey Lugovoy, legal wrangling over possible extradition led to a diplomatic spat between the UK and Russia.
Britain’s prime suspect says he is innocent and is willing to come to the UK to cooperate with the investigation.
“We would be ready to go there if firstly, the British resume the investigation; secondly, send all the materials they have here [to Moscow] to prove the basis of the charges; and thirdly, we see their real initiative,” Lugovoy insists on his conditions.
This month, Scotland Yard’s case against Lugovoy sustained a blow. A German court dropped its legal action against another Russian, Dmitry Kovtun, who was suspected of transporting the polonium-210 that Britain believed was used to kill Litvinenko. Kovtun has now been given access to the evidence against him.
“Already now we can see a lot of inconsistencies. If we study carefully all the documents and discrepancies in this case, it will help us to prove the guilt and to show to the world that the Russian party had nothing to do with that,” Kovtun said.
Originally, German authorities said the case against Kovtun was open and shut. They said he appeared to have left a trail of polonium wherever he went in the days leading up to Litvinenko’s murder – on a plane, in a car, and even in the Hamburg apartment of his ex-wife.
A leading writer of Britain’s The Times newspaper, Michael Binyon, believes the German court closed the case because of lack of evidence:
“It was probably decided there would not be a safe conviction – they wouldn’t have enough evidence to prove that the radioactive material was transported by Kovtun. They wouldn’t be able to call witnesses. They probably wouldn’t be able to produce the man and credible witnesses in Germany to have a fair trial. And without those things there’s no point going ahead with an accusation,” Binyon claims.
Now that Germany has thrown that case out, for many it begs the question: how strong is Britain’s evidence against Lugovoy?
“I sometimes wonder if the evidence is as strong as what we suggest it is. I’d like to think it was because the whole country is being led to believe that the evidence is so overwhelmingly patently easy to prove. Then we should try it and see if we can convince the Russian judicial system of the merits of the case. If we can’t, then let’s be honest enough to say we can’t,” says MP Mike Hancock, chairman of Britain’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Russia.
Bringing Lugovoy to trial in Russia would be hard. While he is a Duma deputy he remains immune from prosecution.
The vindication of Kovtun may not automatically prove Lugovoy innocent. But the German case against Kovtun and the British case against Lugovoy both hinge on a radioactive trail. So if the Germans did not have enough to bring Kovtun to trial, the question is, how incontrovertible is the evidence of the Crown Prosecution Service?
BBC: Russia 'is now a criminal state'
Russia has now turned into a "criminal state", according to the man who was once its leading foreign investor.
Bill Browder of Hermitage Capital was reacting to the news that his lawyer had died in prison in Russia after being held for a year without charge.
He told the BBC that his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, had effectively been "held hostage and they killed their hostage."
Through Hermitage Capital Bill Browder campaigned against corruption at some of Russia's largest companies.
Russian officials say they are investigating Mr Magnitsky's death.
In 2005 Mr Browder was banned from Russia as a threat to national security, after allegations that his firms evaded tax, but Mr Browder says his company was targeted by criminals trying to seize millions of pounds worth of his assets.
Mr Browder says he was punished for being a threat to corrupt politicians and bureaucrats.
Since then, a number of Mr Browder's associates in Russia - as well as lawyers acting for his company - have been detained, beaten or robbed.
Before the accusations of tax evasion were raised, for many years Mr Browder had been one of the most outspoken defenders of the Russian government and its then-president Vladimir Putin.
According to Mr Browder, Sergei Magnitsky developed stomach and pancreas problems in prison which were diagnosed by a prison physician. He claims Mr Magnitsky was then moved to a new prison and then deprived of medical treatment.
"They basically said to him if you sign the following false confessions then we'll give you medical treatment - otherwise we wont," claims Mr Browder.
Mr Magnitsky apparently wrote numerous complaints to the court, prosecutors and the prison authorities requesting medical treatment. Mr Browder claims that Mr Magnistky's pleas were first ignored and then denied.
Mr Browder believes that Mr Magnitsky's death is a direct result of tax evasion allegations against him.
"They're trying to come up with any kind of charges they can against me and they were using him as their tool. He was their hostage and they killed their hostage by denying him medical attention, " he says.
Sergei Magnitsky was one of the lawyers hired by Mr Browder to investigate whether fraud had been committed against his firms.
Mr Browder claims that when the police raided his office they took away corporate documents which they then used to steal his companies.
"Sergei Magnitsky was one of the lawyers who discovered the whole crime, figured out who was responsible and then testified against the police officers and after he testified against the police officers the very same police officers had him arrested on spurious charges."
The circumstances surrounding Mr Magnitsky's death has caused Bill Browder to question his attitude to Russia under Putin.
"When Putin first showed up and said he was going to tame the oligarchs I was the biggest fan of that particular concept. Then I realised that what he meant by taming the oligarchs was by sticking law enforcement people in their place," he says.
"Now you have a bunch of law enforcement people who are essentially organised criminals with unlimited power to ruin lives take property and do whatever they like and that's far worse than I have ever seen in Russia before. Russia is essentially a criminal state now."
Mr Browder says he is going to do all he can to get justice for Sergei Magnitsky.
"We're not going to let it rest until the people responsible for the death face justice," he said.
Responding to Mr Magnitsky's death, Russian Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov said he needed more evidence that the prisoner did not receive adequate medical care.
"I would be grateful to human rights activists for providing specific information. In every case where there are doubts that assistance was timely and of good quality, there has to be a probe".
The investigative committee for the Prosecutor's office said they were conducting a full investigation in the death.
"As of now, we don't see a justification for starting a criminal case," said Moscow Investigative Committee chief, Anatoly Bagmet.