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Dead Russian dissident's links to UK espionage to stay secret-hearing

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Sept. 20, 2012, 5:56 p.m. | Russia and former Soviet Union — by Reuters

In this Dec. 7, 2006 file photo, the coffin of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko is carried during his funeral at Highgate Cemetery in north London. An inquest into the death of Litvinenko should take place early next year and will likely consider whether Russian authorities were involved, a senior British judge said Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012.
© AP

LONDON - Possible links between British intelligence agencies and former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, who died from poisoning in London in 2006, will be kept secret at the government's request, a lawyer at a preliminary hearing on his death said on Thursday.

Litvinenko, a Kremlin critic who had been granted British citizenship, died days after he was poisoned with polonium-210, a highly toxic radioactive isotope, which was slipped to him in a cup of tea at a plush London hotel.

On his death bed he accused Russian spies of ordering his killing, and British police and prosecutors say there is evidence to charge two former KGB agents Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun with his murder.

The two deny the accusations and Russia has refused to extradite them.

Hugh Davies, the inquest's lawyer, said the full inquiry into his death could consider possible motives and examine "competing and controversial theories".

Davies disclosed that parts of a British police report which detailed what contacts Litvinenko had with Britain's spy agencies would be kept secret at the government's request.

"The redaction should not be taken as indication one way or another whether or not Mr Litvinenko did have such contacts," Davies said.

Judge Robert Owen said the inquiry would begin early next year and could examine if he was murdered on Kremlin orders.

COLD WAR LOW

Under British law, an inquest, a judicial-led inquiry, is held when a person dies unexpectedly to determine the cause of death. It cannot apportion criminal or civil blame.

Anglo-Russian relations plunged to a post-Cold War low in the aftermath of Litvinenko's death and the subsequent allegations, with tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions.

The relationship is still strained and the inquest could again inflame tensions.

The Kremlin rejects any allegations of involvement by President Vladimir Putin or the Russian government in Litvinenko's death and accuses Britain of having an anti-Russian bias.

However, Ben Emmerson, the lawyer for Litvinenko's wife Marina, told Thursday's pre-inquest hearing that she wanted the Russian state's possible involvement to be thoroughly examined.

"It is Mrs Litvinenko's firm position that this inquiry should be capable of investigating and determining whether her husband's killing was a targeted assassination of a British citizen, carried out by agents of a foreign state," he said.

"This would be an act of state-sponsored nuclear terrorism on the streets of London", Emmerson said.

Britain's prime suspect Lugovoy, who was later elected to Russia's lower house of parliament, will be an "interested party" at the inquest and thus entitled to see all its reports, as will Boris Berezovsky, a former Kremlin insider who became a fierce Putin critic and was granted asylum in Britain.

Further review hearings will take place on Nov. 2 and Dec. 13-14, when Owen will rule whether the full inquest will be heard in front of a jury.

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