The Litvinenko Mystery: What Does Britain Really Know?

International Herald Tribune
Aug 30, 2008

by Edward Jay Epstein

Alexander Litvinenko, a 44-year-old ex-KGB officer who had defected from Russia to England in 2000 and drew on his experience to denounce the government of the newly installed President Vladimir Putin, died in a London hospital on Nov. 23, 2006, after being exposed to the radioactive isotope Polonium 210.

The mysterious circumstances surrounding his death spawned a full-blown international crisis when Britain demanded that Russia extradite a Russian citizen allegedly connected to the case.

When Russia refused on the grounds that its constitution forbid extradition, Britain, in reprisals reminiscent of the Cold War, expelled four Russian diplomats from London. Russia followed suit, expelling a similar number, and breaking off its anti-terrorism cooperation with Britain.

At the time, the British authorities told the media, "We are 100 percent sure who administered the poison, where and how." But it released none of the evidence.

Today, despite the popular misconception that the case has been solved, little, if any, forensic evidence has emerged that explains how, or even when, Litvinenko was exposed to Polonium 210. In any poisoning case, the basic evidence includes the autopsy report, the toxicological analysis and the autopsy slides of the victim's body. These would probably reveal whether the victim inhaled the radioactive particles through his lungs, ingested them in food, or got them directly in his bloodstream through an open cut. They could also indicate how many times the exposure occurred.

This information, in turn, would be necessary for the coroner to determine whether the victim had been accidentally exposed (as was the case in all previous Polonium poisoning cases) or murdered.

In the Litvinenko case, the coroner's report has never been completed. The crucial autopsy data has been denied not only to journalists and Litvinenko's family on the grounds that it is part of an ongoing investigation, but also to Britain's erstwhile partner in the investigation, Russia.

While there may be good reason to keep an autopsy report secret from the public, keeping it secret from its investigative partner is mystifying.

Even when Britain requested that Russia take legal action against a Russian citizen and extradite him, it refused to supply the autopsy report. "Without the autopsy report," the Russian prosecutor said, "we don't even know the cause of death."

The British government also classified the hospital records and refused to allow Russian investigators to speak to the doctors who treated him for weeks before his death.

This medical stone-walling left unanswered why British doctors repeatedly misdiagnosed Litvinenko, and, despite his symptoms of radiation exposure, did not test his urine specimens for alpha as well as gamma radiation, and never gave him the antidote Dimercaprol, which might have saved his life.

When I examined the British police report sent to Moscow in June 2006 in support of its extradition request, I was stunned to see that without the medical reports, there was an almost total evidentiary vacuum, at least in terms of conventional evidence.

The report cited no eye-witnesses, surveillance videotapes, fingerprints, Polonium container, or smoking teapot. Instead, the police report made it clear that the case was based on radiation traces.

What made this kind of unconventional evidence vulnerable to misinterpretation, if it could be introduced in court at all, is that almost all the crime scenes at which the radiation was found were compromised.

Because of the misdiagnosis, police did not seal off the sites for several weeks, so it is unknown how much Polonium 210 had been removed or spread by washing, vacuuming, foot traffic or other events at various sites. So the different levels of radiation readings referred to in the police report may reflect no more than the different conditions that they were subjected to over many weeks.

But even if they were not compromised, the radiation trail leads back to London on Oct. 16, when Litvinenko met two Russian businessmen. Since no traces of radiation were found on the Transaero plane on which they came to London that morning, but traces were found in restaurants, bars, hotels and offices that one or more of these three men visited between Oct. 16 and Nov. 3, the only implication that can be drawn from this radioactive trail is that these three men - or at least one of them (since they were in contact with each other) - had been contaminated on Oct. 16 and, unaware of the contamination on their person or clothes, left traces wherever they went.

Nor was Polonium 210 itself evidence of culpability of any particular nation. Because it is used as part of the trigger for early-stage nuclear weapons, its production is a matter of concern for the International Atomic Energy Agency. The nuclear reactors of at least 10 countries are not inspected by the IAEA - including Pakistan, India, Israel, China and North Korea (which used Polonium 210 to trigger its nuclear bomb in October 2006). Any of these could have produced Polonium 210. It could also have been pilfered from the industrial stockpiles maintained by Russia and the United States, since, according to the IAEA data base, there were 14 incidents of missing Polonium 210 between 2004 and 2006 (mainly in the United States); or from any lab using it for experiments. We simply do not know its origins or the route by which it was smuggled into London.

This vacuum is the state of the evidence today. It had been filled mainly with guesses, theories and pseudo-facts, much of it supplied by exiles from the former Soviet Union in London whose agendas go beyond a strict fidelity to facts.

What is desperately needed to rein in this organized flight from reality is to provide a factual basis for the Litvinenko case, beginning with the autopsy results.

For one thing, this would deprive Russia of an excuse for not moving ahead with the investigation. Since without Russian cooperation the investigation is at a standstill, Britain has nothing to lose by making public the autopsy results.


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