Britain demands Russian polonium suspect
British prosecutors accused a former KGB agent on Tuesday of murdering dissident Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium and sought his extradition, throwing London and Moscow on to a diplomatic collision course.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said it wanted to bring suspect Andrei Lugovoy before a British court and charge him with the “extraordinarily grave crime” of murdering exiled Russian Litvinenko in London last November.
Britain immediately summoned the Russian ambassador and told him in strong terms it expected “full cooperation”, but a Moscow judicial source ruled out handing over Lugovoy.
“No one should be under any doubt about the seriousness with which we regard this case. Murder is murder,” Prime Minister Tony Blair’s spokesperson said.
He stressed Britain had important political and economic ties with Russia but added: “This doesn’t in any way obviate the need for the international rule of law to be respected, and we will not in any way shy away from trying to ensure that happens in a case such as this.”
The murkiest case of murder and espionage since the Cold War has already strained diplomatic relations, and the extradition move looked certain to aggravate tensions further. Ties between Russia and the European Union are also frosty.
A source at the Russian prosecutor-general’s office told RIA Novosti news agency: “Under the Constitution of the Russian Federation, Russian citizens cannot be handed over to foreign countries for prosecution and Lugovoy appears to be a Russian citizen.”
Litvinenko, a former KGB agent who had become a fierce Kremlin critic in exile, met Lugovoy and another Russian businessman, Dmitry Kovtun, at the Pine Bar of London’s Millennium Hotel on November 1 2006.
Within hours, he had fallen severely ill. He suffered an agonising death over the next three weeks as his organs gradually failed, his hair fell out and images of his emaciated body, hooked up to medical tubes, were published around the world. Doctors eventually diagnosed polonium poisoning.
In a letter dictated on his deathbed, Litvinenko, who had acquired British citizenship weeks before he was poisoned, accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of his murder.
Moscow dismissed the accusation as ridiculous. It has launched its own investigation into Litvinenko’s death and denies that its security services played any part.
Lugovoy, a former KGB bodyguard who later worked as head of security for tycoon Boris Berezovsky, has previously laughed off reports Britain would seek his extradition. He has denied killing Litvinenko and accused British media of demonising him.
Lugovoy was not answering calls on Tuesday and did not respond to messages sent to his cellphone.
Ken Macdonald, head of the Crown Prosecution Service, said prosecuting him would clearly be in the public interest.
“I have instructed CPS lawyers to take immediate steps to seek the early extradition of Andrei Lugovoy from Russia to the United Kingdom, so that he may be charged with murder—and be brought swiftly before a court in London to be prosecuted for this extraordinarily grave crime,” he said.
A CPS spokesperson said it would ask the police to obtain an arrest warrant, which would then be sent to Russian authorities.
“The ball is now in the Russians’ court,” she said. “We can’t speculate on what the Russians will do.”
Litvinenko’s widow Marina said: “I am now very anxious to see that justice is really done and that Mr Lugovoy is extradited and brought to trial in a UK court.” - Reuters