The science was objective, conclusive and utterly damning. It had the simplicity of undeniable fact. Back in Moscow, in numerous subsequent interviews, Kovtun would claim innocence. He was never able to explain away this piece of evidence: why was the polonium in his bathroom?
he Russian operation to murder Litvinenko would have had a codename -– thus far unknown. It could finally be marked down as a success. It was the sixth anniversary of Litvinenko’s arrival in Britain: 1 November 2000. He did not know it yet, but he was dying. The substance used to kill him had been chosen because the killers believed it could not be detected. The plan was working. From this point on nothing – not even the most gifted medical team from the heavens – could save him.
* * *
Seventeen days later, Litvinenko was lying in hospital, mortally ill. His case had baffled medical staff. Eventually, they had alighted on a diagnosis of thallium poisoning. This late stage saw the arrival of Scotland Yard.
To begin with, the British police had a confusing picture – a poisoned Russian who spoke poor English; a baffling plot involving visitors from Moscow; and a swirl of potential crime scenes. Two detectives, DI Brent Hyatt and DS Chris Hoar, from the Met’s specialist crime unit, interviewed Litvinenko in the critical care unit on the 16th floor of University College Hospital. He had been admitted as Edwin Redwald Carter, his British pseudonym. He is a “significant witness” in the investigation. There are 18 interviews, lasting eight hours and 57 minutes in total. These conversations stretch out over three days, from the early hours of 18 November until shortly before 9pm on 20 November.
The interview transcripts were kept secret for eight-and-a-half years, hidden in Scotland Yard’s case file, and stamped with the word “Restricted”. Revealed in 2015, they are remarkable documents. They are, in effect, unique witness statements taken from a ghost. But Litvinenko is no ordinary ghost: he is a ghost who uses his final reserves of energy to solve a chilling murder mystery – his own.
Litvinenko was a highly experienced detective. He knew how investigations worked. He was fastidious too: neatly collating case materials in a file, always employing a hole‑punch. In the interviews, he sets out before the police in dispassionate terms the evidence of who might have poisoned him. He acknowledges: “I cannot blame these people directly because I have no proof.”
He is an ideal witness – good with descriptions, heights, details. He draws up a list of suspects. There are three of them: the Italian Mario Scaramella; his business partner Andrei Lugovoi, and Lugovoi’s unpleasant Russian companion, whose name Litvinenko struggles to remember, and to whom he refers wrongly as “Volodia” or “Vadim”.
Hyatt begins recording at eight minutes after midnight on 18 November. He introduces himself and his colleague DS Hoar. Litvinenko gives his own name and address.
Hoar then says: “Thank you very much for that, Edwin. Edwin, we’re here investigating an allegation that somebody has poisoned you in an attempt to kill you.” Hoar says that doctors have told him Edwin is suffering from “extremely high levels of thallium” and “that is the cause of this illness”.
He continues: “Can I ask you to tell us what you think has happened to you and why?”
Medical staff had pre-briefed Hoar that Litvinenko spoke good English. Hoar discovered that was not true. After this first conversation, an interpreter was brought in.
Litvinenko is still able to give a full account of his career in the FSB, his deepening conflict with the agency. He also talks of his “good relationship” with the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, another Putin enemy, and her fear that she was in danger. In spring 2006, they met in a branch of Cafe Nero in London. Litvinenko asked her what was wrong. She told him: “Alexander, I’m very afraid,” and said that every time she said goodbye to her daughter and son she had the feeling she was looking at them “for the last time”. He urged her to leave Russia. She said she could not – her parents were old, she had kids. In October 2006, Politkovskaya was shot dead in the stairwell of her Moscow apartment.
Politkovskaya’s murder left Litvinenko “very, very shocked”, he says, adding: “I lost of a lot of my friends”, and that human life in Russia is cheap He tells detectives about his speech in the Frontline Club, a press club in London, the previous month, in which he accused Putin publicly of having Politkovskaya killed.
From time to time, the interviews stop: the tape runs out; nurses come in to administer drugs; Litvinenko, suffering from diarrhoea, has to go to the bathroom. Mostly, though, he battles on. He tells Hyatt: “Meeting you is very important for my case.”
It is the two Russians who are at the centre of his suspicions. Litvinenko recounts his meeting with them at the Millennium. He says that he had not been to the hotel before and that he had to find it on a map. He insists this “special” information remain secret – not to be made public or shared with his wife Marina. “These people, it’s interesting. Most interesting,” he muses.
With time running out, Litvinenko is working furiously to solve the conundrum. The transcript reads:
Carter [Litvinenko]: Only these three people can poison me.
Hyatt: These three.
Carter: Mario, Vadim [Kovtun] and Andrei.
There are moments when it appears that there are three officers hard at work: Hyatt, Hoar and Litvinenko, the punctilious ex-cop. After four or five hours of interviews, the case begins to cohere. The investigation gains new momentum. Information is passed back to SO15, the counter-terrorist command at Scotland Yard, headed by Det Supt Clive Timmons.
Litvinenko explains that his most important papers are kept at home, in the lower shelf of a large cupboard. The papers include critical information on Putin, and the people around him, from newspapers and other sources, as well as background on Russian criminal gangs. He gives the police his email password and bank account. He tells them where they can find receipts for two Orange sim cards, bought for £20 from a store in Bond Street – in a black leather wallet on his bedside table. Litvinenko explains that he gave one of the sims to Lugovoi; they used these secret numbers to communicate. He hands over his diary.
Ever helpful, Litvinenko phones his wife and asks her to locate a photo of Lugovoi at their home. Hyatt suspends the interview to secure the photograph. Lugovoi is now a prime suspect. Litvinenko describes him like this: “Andrei is a pure European, and even he looks a little bit like me, sort of. The same type as like me … I am 1m 77cm – 1m 78cm, so he is probably 1m 76cm. He is two years younger than me, light hair.” He has a small, “almost invisible” bald patch.
The transcript reads:
Hyatt: Edwin, do you consider Andrei to be a friend of yours, or a business associate? What, how do you describe your relationship with Andrei?
Carter: … He is not a friend. He is a business partner.
At the end of his second day of interviews, on 19 November, Litvinenko describes getting a lift home with a Chechen friend named Akhmed Zakayev: “Now the paradoxical thing is that I was still feeling very well but then somehow I had some kind of feeling that something might happen to me in the nearest future. Maybe subconsciously.” The detectives turn off the tape. It is a full and frank account of events leading up to Litvinenko’s poisoning – with one exception. During these two days he does not mention his secret life and his job working for British intelligence. It is only the next day that he speaks of his meeting on 31 October with his MI6 handler “Martin”, in the basement cafe of the Waterstone’s bookshop on Piccadilly. Litvinenko is chary – evidently reluctant to discuss his undercover role.
Carter: On 31 October at about 4pm, I had a meeting arranged with a person about whom I wouldn’t really like to talk here because I have some commitments. You can contact that person on that long telephone number which I gave you.
Hyatt: Did you meet with that person, Edwin?
Hyatt: Edwin, it could be absolutely vital that you tell us who that person is.
Carter: You can call him and he will tell you.
The interview abruptly stops. It’s 5.16pm. Hyatt dials the long telephone number, reaches “Martin”, and tells him that Litvinenko is gravely ill in hospital, the victim of an apparent poisoning by two mysterious Russians.
MI6’s reaction is unclear. The British government has still refused to release the relevant files. One can imagine panic and embarrassment. And the agency shifting into full-blown crisis mode. The transcripts show that after speaking to DI Hyatt, “Martin” scrambled to Litvinenko’s hospital bedside. He talked to his poisoned agent, and left around 7.15pm. The police interview then resumes; the final exchanges deal with earlier threats against Litvinenko from the Kremlin and its emissaries. The detectives ask if there is anything Litvinenko would like to add:
Hoar: Can you think of anybody else who may wish to do this sort of harm to you?
Carter: I have no doubt who wanted it, and I often receive threats from these people. This was done … I have no doubt whatsoever that this was done by the Russian Secret Services. 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 is something to do with Great Britain, could have been given by only one person.
Hyatt: Would you like to tell us who that person is, sir? Edwin?
Carter: That person is the president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin. And if … you of course know, while he’s still president, you won’t be able to prosecute him as the main person who gave that order, because he is the president of a huge country crammed with nuclear, chemical and bacteriological weapons. But I have no doubt whatsoever that as soon as the power changes in Russia or when the first officer of Russian Special Services defects to the west he will say the same. He will say that I have been poisoned by the Russian Special Services on Putin’s order.
* * *
Litvinenko’s condition was rapidly deteriorating. On 20 November, the same day as his last police interview, doctors moved him to intensive care. There it was easier to monitor him and, if necessary, to intervene. Litvinenko’s heart rate was becoming abnormal; his major organs failing.
The medics treating him were in uncharted territory. Litvinenko’s case was problematic: his symptoms were not consistent with thallium poisoning. He had severe bone marrow failure and gut damage, which fitted. But he lacked one key symptom of thallium poisoning – peripheral neuropathy, pain or numbness in his fingers and feet. “It was still a bit of a mystery,” one doctor said.
Meanwhile, those close to Litvinenko were reluctantly concluding that he was unlikely to survive.
The Kremlin would subsequently accuse Litvinenko’s friend Alex Goldfarb, and Boris Berezovsky of cynically exploiting him, as part of their long-running public relations campaign against Putin. In fact, Litvinenko made it abundantly clear – as the Scotland Yard transcripts show – that he held Putin personally responsible for his poisoning. And he wanted to send this message to the world.
Litvinenko’s lawyer, George Menzies, began drafting a statement on his behalf. Menzies later said that the ideas in it were wholly Litvinenko’s. “I was doing my best, in personal terms, to represent what I truly believed to be Sasha’s state of mind and sentiment,” he said. Its themes – Litvinenko’s pride in being British, his love of his wife, his belief as to the source of his illness – mirrored what his client thought, Menzies said.
Goldfarb and Menzies took the draft to the hospital. They showed it to Marina. Her reaction was negative. She believed her husband would pull through and that writing a last testament was tantamount to giving up on him. Pragmatically, they told her: “Better to do it now than later.”
Menzies consulted with Tim Bell, chairman of the London PR firm Bell Pottinger. Bell’s company had worked for Berezovsky since 2002, helping the exiled oligarch through various legal scrapes, and had assisted the Litvinenkos as well. Bell said he thought the text was too gloomy and read like a “deathbed statement.” “I didn’t think it was the right thing to do because I still hoped and believed Sasha would live,” Bell said.
Goldfarb read out the A4 sheet to Litvinenko in intensive care, translating it from English to Russian. At one point Goldfarb made a movement with his arms, mimicking the flight of an angel flapping its wings. Litvinenko endorsed the statement in its entirety, confirming: “This is exactly what I want to say.” Litvinenko then signed and dated it – 21 November 2006, his signature trailing off into a black swirl.
The statement accused Litvinenko’s one-time FSB boss of murder, and ended: “You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life.”
TV cameras and media had gathered outside the hospital’s main gate, waiting for news.
Sixteen floors above them, Litvinenko asked Goldfarb if he was a big story. He was – but not much was known about Litvinenko, other than that he was a prominent critic of Putin’s, and desperately ill. Goldfarb said: “Sasha, if you really want the message to be seriously put across, we need a photo.” Marina was against the idea, and saw it as an invasion of privacy. But Litvinenko agreed, and said: “Yes, if you think it’s needed, let’s do it.”
Goldfarb rang Bell Pottinger and spoke to Jennifer Morgan, Bell’s liaison. Morgan in turn called a photographer she knew, Natasja Weitsz. Weitsz arrived at the hospital and was escorted upstairs past a police guard. She was with Litvinenko for mere minutes. He pushed his green hospital gown to one side so as to reveal the electro-cardiagram sensors attached to his heart. Weitsz shot a couple of frames of Litvinenko: bald, gaunt and defiant, staring with cornflower-blue eyes directly at the camera lens. The image was cropped around its haunting subject. It went round the world.
By the next day, Wednesday 22 November, doctors treating Litvinenko had scrapped their diagnosis. Their notes read: “We DO NOT feel this gentleman has or had inorganic thallium poisoning.”
At midday, a top-level meeting was convened at the Met’s counter-terrorism command. It involved SO15 detectives,led by Det Supt Timmons, medical staff, a scientist from the UK’s atomic weapons establishment, the forensic science service and Dr Nick Gent from Porton Down, the UK’s military science facility. The latest urine test had revealed the presence of a new radioactive isotope – polonium-210. But this was marked down as an anomaly, caused by the plastic container used to carry the sample.
According to Timmons, the specialists discussed five theories that might explain Litvinenko’s baffling poisoning. Most were esoteric. The experts decided to investigate further and to send a litre of urine to Aldermaston.
Back in the intensive care ward, Litvinenko was drifting in and out of consciousness. The Russian-German film-maker Andrei Nekrasov visited him. Nekrasov had previously conducted several interviews with Litvinenko; he shot the video on condition that it would be released only with Marina’s approval. Litvinenko lies on his bed, a vanquished soul, around whom the world is darkening. A drip is attached to his nose; his cheeks are hollow; his eyes are open – just. There is pale afternoon light.
“He was conscious, but was very, very weak,” Marina said. “I spent almost all day sitting close to him, [to] make him just be calm and more relaxed.” At 8pm Marina got up to leave, and told her husband: “Sasha, unfortunately I have to go.”
She said: “He smiled so sadly, and I started to feel I’m guilty because I’m leaving him, and I just said: ‘Don’t worry, tomorrow morning I will come and everything will be fine.’”
Litvinenko whispered back to her: “I love you so much.”
At midnight the hospital called to say that Litvinenko had gone into cardiac arrest, not once but twice. The medics managed to resuscitate him. Marina returned to University College Hospital, getting a lift with Zakayev, and found her husband unconscious and on a life-support machine. She spent the following day, 23 November, at his side; Litvinenko was in an induced coma. That evening she went back to Muswell Hill. An hour after arriving home the phone rang. It was the hospital telling her urgently to return.
Litvinenko suffered a third cardiac arrest at 8.51pm. The consultant on duty, Dr James Down, tried to revive him but at 9.21pm pronounced him dead. When Marina and Anatoly arrived at the hospital they were taken not to the ward but to a side room. Ten or 15 minutes later, the doctor told them that Litvinenko had died. He added: “Would you like to see Sasha?” to which Marina replied: “Of course.”
For the first time in several days, Marina was allowed to touch and kiss her husband; Anatoly ran from the room after half a minute.
Six hours before Litvinenko’s death, at about 3pm, Timmons received a phone call from the atomic weapons establishment. It had the results from the latest tests. They confirmed that Litvinenko was “terribly contaminated”, as Timmons put it, with radioactive polonium.
• A Very Expensive Poison by Luke Harding was published in March 2016 by Guardian Faber
Source for article: Alexander Litvinenko: The Man that Solved His Own Murder (The Guardian)
On Monday, 12 December 2016, Russian dissident and activist Vladimir Bukovsky appeared in Crown Court in Cambridge, UK, to face a jury trial for possession of child pornography on his home computer. The files were found by law enforcement officers, who raided his home shortly before Bukovsky was to testify in the inquiry into the murder of his close friend, former Russian secret service officer Alexander Litvinenko, which he did in early 2015.
Many believe Bukovsky was framed by Russian operatives who planted the offending files on his computer. The defence presentation was postponed until July 24, 2017 following Bukovsky’s admission to a hospital for pneumonia. He has been in poor health for several years, which affected scheduling of his testimony at the Litvinenko Inquiry.