A Public Inquiry into Litvinenko’s Death is Likely–And Necessary

May 23, 2013
Marina Litvinenko. Source: The Guardian.

LONDON — In a strongly-worded, statement, Alexander Litvinenko’s widow Marina accused the British coroner of allowing “the Russian government to shield behind a claim for secrecy made by William Hague with the backing of Prime Minister David Cameron.”

Marina Litvinenko certainly has every reason to be angry at the pace of this inquest, at the many delays and false starts which occurred throughout this highly technical, painful and expensive process. And now it lies in ruins.

There is also the question of whether or not the UK government still wants justice to be done at all. The fact that the Litvinenko family’s application for state financial assistance for legal representation, to which it is entitled, has been under consideration with the Justice Secretary for many months does not give the current government much credit in that regard.

And yet, we must not forget that the justice system in Britain is fiercely independent from the government of the day. My contacts in Westminster referred me to the intricate constitutional arrangements governing the relationship between the judiciary and executive when I asked them how likely it was that Marina would be given any answers for her murdered husband.

The inquest collapsed owing to the highly sensitive nature of the documents requested by the Coroner, Sir Robert Owen. Foreign Secretary William Hague was duty-bound to hand over these documents but, having done so, he was obliged to make an application to keep them secret. Many of them are likely to have come from both the Secret Intelligence Service and the Security Service (MI6 and MI5 respectively).

The Russian government, meanwhile, was legally represented as an “interested party,” which basically gave them the right to see every piece of evidence and document presented to any other party, such as Marina Litvinenko and her son. An inquest is effectively an open court, where secret documents cannot be considered without all parties having access to them in one way or another.

Naturally, in this particular case, where the Russian organs of state security are under a strong suspicion of organizing the murder of Litvinenko, the question of access has became particularly acute.

Above all, the British intelligence and security service guard two things particularly jealously – the identities of their agents, especially those still in place, and methods they employ in their work. Any secret documents from those agencies would contain such information, and the Russian counter-intelligence would love nothing better than to get their hands on it.

It is that, in my view, which formed the basis for the Foreign Secretary’s application for Public Interest Immunity (PII). My sources tell me that faced with the presence of the Russian government representatives at the inquest, the Foreign Secretary had little option but to act as he did.

Did the Russians know how the Foreign Secretary was bound to react in this situation? More than likely, I would have thought. By simply being an “interested party,” they helped to sabotage the process, delay judicial conclusions and acquire the grounds they need to one day accuse the British side of hiding the truth.

What about the likely course of events to follow? As we know, the victim’s family and other parties will be making representations to the Coroner whether he should request a public inquiry.

In contrast to an inquest, a public inquiry in theory can provide a secure and controlled environment for consideration of secret documents, without foreign representatives gaining formal access.

My sources tell me that if the Coroner requests the Justice Secretary to consider instigating a public inquiry, then under the current system the Justice Secretary is expected to agree to it. If the executive does not, then it would create a serious procedural and possibly even constitutional precedent. It would give rise to all kinds of serious questions, from the public, the media and parliament.

Personally, I don’t believe that David Cameron’s government is quite ready for this kind of unpleasantness, particularly given the other tricky political issues it is currently struggling through.

So all eyes will now be on the Coroner and on how well the Litvinenko family argues their case in an open forum.