British Foreign Secretary William Hague has been accused of putting Britain’s trade interests with Russia above justice after he sought to withhold evidence from the inquest into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko.
Ben Emmerson QC, the lawyer acting for Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, said Hague and British Prime Minister David Cameron were “dancing to the Russian tarantella” and seeking to “cover up” evidence that the Russian state was behind Litvinenko’s polonium poisoning in 2006.
Earlier this month, Hague signed a broad public interest immunity (PII) certificate that would prevent secret government files from being revealed. On Tuesday, his lawyer argued the material, if released, would cause “a real risk of serious damage to the public interest.”
The government refuses to say what the material is.
At the time of his death, Litvinenko was working for the British and Spanish security services, it emerged in December last year. As well as being on MI6’s (British foreign intelligence) payroll, Litvinenko was investigating highly sensitive links between the Russian mafia in Spain and figures inside the Kremlin.
Speaking on Tuesday, Emmerson said Hague’s attempt to hide evidence would undermine the inquest and could ultimately result in an alarming “stain on British justice.”
“The British government, like the Russian government, is conspiring to get this inquest closed down in exchange for substantial trade interests which we know Mr Cameron is pursuing,” Emmerson said.
Both Cameron and Hague visited Moscow in 2011 on a trade mission. The government was keen at the highest level to “build bridges” with the Kremlin, Emmerson said.
He read out an account of the trip from the Guardian, quoting Cameron as saying that Britain’s well-known differences with Moscow needed to be pragmatically “negotiated around.”
Last summer, the prime minister watched judo with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the London Olympics, at one point “draping” his hand on Putin’s shoulder, Emmerson told the hearing.
“We cannot allow Her Majesty’s government, by misusing the PII system, to use this inquest to dance to the Russian tarantella,” he said.
Litvinenko died in November 2006 after meeting two Russians, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, in the Pine Bar of London’s Millennium hotel. The pair are alleged to have slipped radioactive polonium-210 into Litvinenko’s tea.
The Kremlin has refused to extradite Lugovoi and Kovtun. Both deny murder.
Emmerson said it was “disgraceful” that British Home Secretary Chris Grayling had refused to pick up the bill for Mrs Litvinenko’s legal costs so far, with a decision pending.
The inquest was due to start in May, but the coroner, Sir Robert Owen, said that because of the “complexity” of the case the substantive hearing into Litvinenko’s death was likely to be delayed.
Media groups have challenged Hague’s attempt to conceal evidence.
Alex Bailin QC, acting for the Guardian, said that if the government’s PII application succeeded, the principle of open justice would suffer. Additionally, the two alleged murderers, Lugovoi and Kovtun, could “benefit,” he said.
He warned the Kremlin could in effect be given a “license to kill.”
Media groups and Marina Litvinenko are unhappy that the government has failed to give details of what it wants to keep secret, merely citing the “national interest” and “international relations.”
“We know nothing about why these applications are being made. We are dancing in the dark,” Emmerson said, adding that the PII request was “extraordinarily broad.”
He told the coroner: “It is beginning to look like you are being steamrollered by two states acting in collaboration with each other.”
Owen responded: “You can rest assured I am not being steamrollered from either direction.”
Alex Goldfarb, Litvinenko’s close friend, said it was not surprising that the government wanted to keep a lid on the inquest.
“HMG [Her Majesty’s government] is worried about fallout with Putin; MI6 is worried about its agent being killed by polonium; the Russians are worried about being caught red-handed; Putin is concerned about being called a mafia boss,” Goldfarb said.