Thu, May 24, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Key Litvinenko witness in Russian prison

HEALTH THREAT Attorneys for Mikhail Trepashkin say Moscow is trying to cover up its involvement by hiding him away in the Urals and refusing to treat his asthma


As Alexander Litvinenko lay dying of radioactive polonium in a London hospital, a fellow former KGB agent wrote angry letters from a Ural Mountain prison colony saying he had warned that a government hit squad was hunting Litvinenko.

After a series of sensational accusations by prisoner Mikhail Trepashkin, 50, authorities transferred him to a higher security barracks. Trepashkin's lawyers say he has been placed in conditions that exacerbated his chronic asthma, putting his life in peril.

Several human-rights organizations have repeatedly appealed for his release or for improved medical treatment. In late March, the US-based group Human Rights First cited concerns that the prisoner "could die in custody."

In letters released by his lawyers late last year, Trepashkin said he had long warned of a death squad formed by the FSB Russian security service to kill Litvinenko and other Kremlin critics.

"I'm feeling a great anger in my soul over Alexander V. Litvinenko's death," Trepashkin wrote. "Anger at the fact that the weak and disorganized human-rights movement in Russia could neither prevent political murders nor provide protection to people persecuted by the authorities for political motives."

Russia's top prosecutor dismissed the letters as "stupidity" and refused to allow a team of Scotland Yard investigators to talk to Trepashkin when they visited Russia last December as part of an investigation into Litvinenko's death.

Trepashkin's lawyer, Yelena Liptser, said it looked like an attempt by officials to hide the truth.

"If they want an objective and thorough investigation, they must provide access to a person claiming that he has information related to the probe," she said.

Liptser said the prison where Trepashkin is near the industrial town of Nizhny Tagil, 1,200km east of Moscow, is next to a huge coke plant whose toxic emissions had badly exacerbated Trepashkin's condition. Officials have rejected appeals that he be hospitalized or at least transferred to another location, and they have refused to provide proper medical care.

"He's having regular asthma attacks, and we fear that he may die of it one day," Liptser said.

Trepashkin, who became a lawyer after quitting the FSB, was arrested in October 2003 on charges of illegal possession of a gun, which he said was planted. He was arrested days before he was to have taken part in a trial related to the 1999 apartment building explosions that killed about 300 people in Moscow and two other cities.

The government blamed the explosions on Chechnya-based rebels, but Litvinenko and other Kremlin critics alleged they were staged by authorities as a pretext for launching the second Chechen war. Trepashkin was one of those who rejected the official version of the bombings.

The gun charge was dismissed, but Trepashkin was convicted of divulging state secrets.

Trepashkin said in his prison letters that FSB officers possessed poisons that could be applied to a car's steering wheel or door handles, on telephone receivers or elsewhere to kill a person without leaving a trace in his body. He said Litvinenko could be the most recent of a number of people allegedly murdered by FSB poisons.

Trepashkin wrote that FSB Colonel Viktor Shebalin met with him in August 2002 and offered him the chance to join a group targeting Boris Berezovsky, a self-exiled Russian tycoon living in London, and Litvinenko.

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