LONDON (Reuters) - Ex-KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko, who died three months after drinking tea poisoned with a radioactive isotope, told British police that Russian President Vladimir Putin was personally behind his killing, an inquiry heard on Tuesday.
British authorities believe Kremlin-critic Litvinenko was poisoned with green tea laced with polonium-210 at the Millennium Hotel in central London on Nov. 1, 2006 during a meeting with two Russians, Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun.
At the start of a long-awaited inquiry which will delve into the murky world of British and Russian spies, exiled Russian oligarchs and the mafia, lawyer Robin Tam said secret British government evidence provided a prima facie case of Russian culpability.
Tam read a transcript of an interview Litvinenko gave detectives while on his death bed in which he said: “I have no doubt whatsoever this was done by the Russian secret service.
“Having knowledge of the system, I know that the order about such a killing of a citizen of another country on its territory, especially if it’s something to with Great Britain, could have been given by only one person.
“That person is the president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin.”
The Kremlin has always denied involvement, as have Lugovoy and Kovtun, the main suspects, whom Russia has refused to extradite.
In a passionate opening speech, Ben Emmerson, the lawyer for Litvinenko’s widow Marina, also blamed Putin. He said all the evidence pointed to the president ordering the killing to cover up close links between his administration and the Russian mafia, which the inquiry would expose.
“It was an act of nuclear terrorism on the streets of a major city which put the lives of numerous members of the public at risk,” Emmerson said.
“Mr Putin should be unmasked by this inquiry as nothing more than a common criminal dressed up as a head of state.”
The controversy generated by the killing chilled Anglo-Russian relations to a post-Cold War low. As ties improved, Britain rejected holding an inquiry in 2013, but with relations subsequently soured by the Ukraine crisis, the British government changed its mind last July.
Inquiry lawyer Tam said the authorities had followed a radioactive trail across London which suggested there had been a previous attempt to poison Litvinenko during meetings he had the month before with Lugovoy and Kovtun.
Tests had shown traces of polonium at offices, hotels and planes used by the two Russians, he said, while one witness said Kovtun had asked him to find a cook in London who could lace food with “an expensive poison”.
Litvinenko, who fled Russia exactly six years before he was fatally poisoned, had become a stringent critic of Putin and the FSB security agency, successor to the KGB. He had become sympathetic to the cause of Chechen separatists and was friendly with journalist Anna Politkovskaya, murdered in Moscow in 2006.
The inquiry heard his house and that of his friend, exiled Chechen leader Akhmed Zakayev, had been firebombed in 2004, that there was evidence he had worked for Britain’s MI6 foreign spy agency and that he converted to Islam shortly before his death.
Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Stephen Addison and Robin Pomeroy