On Wednesday in the High Court in London, a two day debate on Marina Litvinenko’s supervisory appeal against the British Home Secretary, Theresa May, came to an end. Alexander Litvinenko’s widow is appealing against the Home Secretary’s decision not to hold a public inquiry into the murder of her husband.
A public inquiry is a special form of English justice, in which the government appoints an independent commission of inquiry to investigate cases of particular public importance. Both public and secret material may be considered within the public inquiry, whose members have access to classified information.
As is known, another legal process has been dealing with the Litvinenko case for more than a year in London: a judicial inquiry (inquest) into the facts of the death. The difference between the two standards of justice is that the law does not allow for private meetings within inquests, and therefore classified material cannot be considered as part of a case.
The idea of reclassifying the inquest as a public inquiry belongs to Sir Robert Owen, the coroner, who is familiar with the classified documents in the case. Sir Robert came to the conclusion that there was evidence in these documents of the Russian state’s involvement in the murder. Because this evidence cannot be considered within the realms of an inquest, Sir Robert withdrew the topic of Russia’s involvement from the agenda of his hearing, and suggested to the government that a public inquiry should be set up so as to consider this evidence. Following the Home Secretary’s refusal to do so, Marina took the affair to court.
During the course of the hearing, a panel of three judges heard from the respondent’s lawyer, claiming that the police had carried out an extensive investigation into the murder, with full access to classified material. Since the police had filed charges against two ‘private individuals’ – Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, but had not named any other accomplices amongst Russian officials, any other investigation would be a waste of time and money. Even if the secret evidence points to the involvement of any Russian state structure, it may not lead to anything in a criminal-judicial sense, because these individuals will not be mentioned by name. The lawyer for the government also said that if the fact of the involvement of the Russian federation was legally established, it would cause irreparable damage to the national security of the UK and therefore such a disclosure would be deemed classified and could not be made public.
Marina Litvinenko’s lawyer stated that the question of whether Litvinenko’s poisoning was an ‘individual murder’ or a ‘public assassination’ is the central issue in the case, rendering it a public interest of special importance. Because of this, establishing the role of Lugovoi and Kovtun without legally recognising that they were acting on behalf of a foreign state would be a violation of justice, which would send a dangerous signal to Russia of the impunity of such actions.
Much of the debate was devoted to the analysis of procedural nuances and judicial precedents. The court’s decision is expected in about a month. If the complaint is upheld, the court will oblige the government to hold a public inquiry. If the complaint is rejected, Marina will have to pay costs in the region of 40-50 thousand pounds.
The Litvinenko Justice Foundation is collecting funds to pay Marina’s legal costs. At the moment the fund account has about 15 thousand pounds. We will be grateful for support.