The Polonium Papers

The Polonium Papers

A lack of hard evidence in the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko has stopped neither the wheels of British justice nor the cameras of Hollywood.


Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-KGB officer, died of polonium poisoning in London last November. On May 22 Britain officially requested the extradition of Russian businessman Andrei Lugovoi, who had at least a dozen meetings with Litvinenko in London last year. In announcing the request, Ken Macdonald, head of public prosecutions in Britain, explained, “I have today concluded that the evidence sent to us by the police is sufficient to charge Andrei Lugovoi with the murder of Mr. Litvinenko by deliberate poisoning.” The police report had been forwarded to his office in January, but Macdonald left unexplained why, if the evidence in the report was that compelling, his office sat on it for three months without taking any action. In any case, the extradition request was inoperative, since the Russian government had stated categorically in advance that it would not extradite a Russian citizen to a foreign country. While the belated request did little to advance the case, it ignited a media firestorm, with op-eds and screaming headlines around the world. The Cannes Film Festival even decided to screen a documentary on Litvinenko’s death. As for the actual status of the evidentiary case, to date:

§ In Russia, prosecutors have not received an official statement from British authorities on the reasons for Litvinenko’s death. Prosecutor General Yury Chaika reported May 25, “To date, the Russian prosecutor’s office has not received any official documents or materials on the Litvinenko case…[or] seen the report from British medical experts on the official cause of Litvinenko’s death.”

§ In the absence of evidence, the Russian authorities have filed no charges in the Litvinenko case.

§ In Britain, the coroner’s office has not released a report on Litvinenko’s death or on the December autopsy. So there is still no official cause of death. Nor is it medically established when, how or how many times he ingested polonium 210. This leaves open the possibility that Litvinenko accidentally ingested or breathed in polonium particles that had leaked from a container. (One millionth of a gram can be fatal.)

§ The Crown prosecutors, meanwhile, awaiting a reply to an extradition request that has been turned down, have not indicted anyone.

§ In Germany, authorities still investigating the smuggling of polonium through Hamburg have not filed any charges.

§ The source of the polonium 210, a rare isotope produced by nuclear reactors, has not been identified. Polonium samples from Litvinenko’s body have not been provided to Russia and other governments that have such reactors.

§ No timeline has been scientifically established showing when people and premises were contaminated in Britain, Russia and Germany by polonium 210, including: (1) Boris Berezovsky’s offices in London. Berezovsky, the exiled Russian billionaire in London, who told the Guardian he was involved in a plot to overthrow Putin, had employed Litvinenko as an adviser and was negotiating a business arrangement with Lugovoi, who had once been his security chief in Moscow; (2) Lugovoi, who met with both Litvinenko and Berezovsky in London; (3) Dmitry Kovtun, a Russian security consultant, who also met with Lugovoi and Litvinenko in London and traveled to Hamburg in October; (4) Mario Scaramella, an Italian investigator, who dined with Litvinenko at the Itsu sushi restaurant just before Litvinenko went to the hospital.

§ The chronological ordering of the different contaminations, and the determination of who contaminated whom and which offices, has been compromised by the long delay in forensic examinations of the possible crime scenes. Three weeks or more elapsed between the time Litvinenko entered the hospital and the examination of the trail of polonium in offices, restaurants, hotels, airplanes and people. During that interval the specks of dust containing the polonium byproducts necessary to date it were scattered. For example, the hotel teapot in which a trace of polonium was found had been repeatedly put through the dishwasher. So it may be impossible to date the exposures accurately.

§ Scaramella is the only person arrested so far. After being hospitalized for exposure to the isotope, he was jailed by Italian authorities on an unrelated charge of “calumny,” because he had accused Ukrainian former KGB agents of trying to assassinate him. Denied bail, he remains in prison.

Even if the legal processes in Britain, Russia, Germany and Italy remain stymied, and no one has produced a witness to explain why polonium was smuggled into London and the medical evidence is not yet known, Hollywood has rushed in to fill the factual void. Columbia Pictures acquired the movie rights to Death of a Dissident, written by Alex Goldfarb (an executive at Berezovsky’s foundation) and Litvinenko’s widow, Marina; Warner Bros. and Initial Entertainment optioned the unwritten book Sasha’s Story: The Life and Death of a Russian Spy, by Alan Cowell, the New York Times correspondent in London covering the Litvinenko story, for a movie starring Johnny Depp. What remains to be seen is whether movies will come out before–or after–the coroner’s report.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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