WOKING, England (Reuters) - A British inquest into the sudden death of a Russian mafia whistleblower was delayed until next year because of a wrangle over sensitive documents the British government wants kept secret.
Alexander Perepilichny, 44, was found dead near his luxury home on the exclusive gated St George’s Hill estate in Weybridge, Surrey, southwest of London, after he had been out jogging in November 2012.
The sudden nature of the death of Perepilichny, who had sought refuge in Britain in 2009, and his role in helping a Swiss investigation into a Russian money-laundering scheme raised suggestions that he might have been murdered.
Surrey Police have said there was no evidence to suggest a third party had been involved, but last year a pre-inquest hearing heard that traces of a rare and deadly poison from the gelsemium plant had been found in his stomach.
The full inquest was due to begin next week but has now been postponed in a legal wrangle over confidential documents.
The government has applied for “public interest immunity” over material it holds citing national security grounds, a move which would prevent the information being considered at a normal inquest which determines how and why a person dies unexpectedly.
Coroner Richard Travers had wanted to know if there was any information which might throw light on whether Perepilichny had been threatened or possible third party involvement.
The issue will now be settled by London’s High Court.
“I‘m enormously frustrated by it,” Travers told a pre-inquest hearing on Tuesday. He added that the inquest would now start on March 13 next year.
Cecily White, a lawyer for Perepilichny’s widow, said the delay was a cause of extreme distress for her client and her two children and had an effect on her health.
Lawyers for Legal & General, with whom he had taken out a life insurance policy, said the situation caused by the government action was disgraceful.
Perepilichny had been providing evidence against those linked to the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky while in custody in Moscow in 2009. Magnitsky had accused Russian government officials of stealing $230 million.
Hermitage Capital Management, which employed Magnitsky, also condemned the move by the government lawyers.
If the High Court judge rules the government information should be kept secret but was relevant to the death, the inquest might have to be abandoned and a public inquiry held instead.
That would be the same sequence of events which led to an inquiry into the death of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.
That inquiry concluded in January that Russian President Vladimir Putin had probably given the go-ahead to a Russian intelligence operation to murder Litvinenko, an outspoken Kremlin critic who had also fled to Britain, with the rare radioactive isotope polonium-210.
Russia, which had declined to cooperate in the Litvinenko inquiry, cautioned pointedly at the time of the public inquiry that it could “poison” relations.
Reporting by Michael Holden; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Ralph Boulton