Litvinenko Inquest

May 20, 2013
Marina Litvinenko, widow of Aleksandr Litvinenko, at the presentation of the documentary film "The Litvinenko Case" in Madrid in 2007. Source: RFE/RL

[Veteran activist and Litvinenko friend Alex Goldfarb explains the next steps for Marina Litvinenko following the news that the UK government has hamstrung the inquest by requesting that crucial evidence remain classified. –Ed.]

Today [May 17] Sir Robert Owen, the British coroner who is performing the inquest into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, in part fulfilled the petition of the government of Great Britain to classify materials relevant to the case.

All materials that indicate the involvement of the Russian Federation in the murder will remain classified, as will all materials related to the question of whether British intelligence could have prevented it. The materials in the possession of Scotland Yard concerning the involvement of Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun are subject to publication in court as before.

Under the law, the coroner’s court can review secret evidence or hold closed sessions. Today’s decision essentially means that the question of Russia’s role will not be reviewed at all in court.

In a statement published by her lawyers in her name, Marina Litvinenko argues that today’s decision

“[…] enables those who gave the order to murder a British citizen on the streets of London to escape responsibility, and gives an opportunity to the Russian government to hide behind the curtain of secrecy which William Hague has created by supporting Prime Minister David Cameron. This is a sad day for Marina, and a tragedy for the British justice system, which had enjoyed respect before now…and it’s a blow for all those in the world trying to expose the crimes of a group of organized criminals operating in the Kremlin. Today’s decision sends them a signal that they may continue to commit crimes with impunity, including murder, throughout the world.”

In accordance with the law, Marina has petitioned the coroner to review within a week’s time the transfer of the inquiry from the format of an “inquest” into the format of a “public investigation.” This format would enable the coroner to hold closed sessions in which classified information could be taken into consideration. Such a decision could be taken by the Minister of Justice at the request of the coroner.

Question from a reader, Masha Genkina: Alexander, shouldn’t the headline be “open” instead of “closed”?

Alexander Goldfarb:  Masha, the point is that the law prohibits the review of secret evidence in an “inquest” format; the evidence cannot be publicized in an open court. Therefore, the recognition of the court of the right of the government to classify information from the intelligence agencies about the involvement of the Russian Federation excludes the review of that topic.

However, in the code of criminal procedure, there is another format, the “public inquiry,” which, despite its name, allows for a hearing behind closed doors. Then Marina would have to use the services of an attorney who would not have the right to reveal the contents of classified materials— even to Marina. In the event of a verdict about the involvement of the Russian Federation, the specific reasons would remain unpublicized. That is, if the inquiry continues in the form of an inquest, the topic of Russia’s involvement remains behind the scenes. If it will be approved in the form of a public inquiry, then that topic will be dealt with, but behind closed doors.

In order to re-qualify an inquest as a public inquiry, the consent of the coroner is needed and then a resolution from the Minister of Justice is required.