The Polonium Papers:

An Update

The Nation
June 18, 2007

by Edward Jay Epstein

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 Lugovoy, 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 Lugovoy 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 (December 5, 2006) 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

*** In Britain, the coroner’s office has not released a report on Litvinenko’s death or on the autopsy conducted in late November. So there is still no official cause of death. Nor is it medically established when, how or the number of occasions on which he ingested polonium 210. This leaves open the possibility that Litvinenko accidentally ingested a speck of Polonium 210 that had leaked out of the container.
*** The Crown prosecutors, meanwhile, awaiting a reply to their 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, remains a mystery. Polonium samples from Litvinenko’s body have not been provided to Russia and other governments that have such reactors. And Russian scientists are unable to trace the Polonium to any known source inside Russia.
*** 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 fugitive Russian billionaire, is involved in, as he described the enterprise to the The Guardian , a plot to overthrow Putin, had employed Litvinenko as an advisor and was negotiating a business arrangement with Lugovoy.
2) Lugovoy, who met with both Litvinenko and Berezovsky in London;
3) Dmitry Kovtun, a Russian security consultant, who also Lugovoy and Litvinenko in London, and traveled to Germany in October.
4) Mario Scaramella, a self-styled Italian investigator who dined with
Litvinenko at the Itsu sushi restaurant just before Litvinenko went
to the hospital.

The chronological ordering of who contaminated who, and which offices, has been badly 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 minute quantities of byproducts necessary to date the Polonium 210 were scattered. For example, the hotel teapot in which a trace of polonium was found had been repeatedly put through the hotel dishwasher over three weeks. 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 under house arrest.

Even if the legal processes in Britain, Russia, Germany and Italy
remain stymied, and no one has produced a witness to explain why
polonium 210 was smuggled into London and the medical evidence is not yet known, the unsubstantiated accusations continue, with Lugovoy now blaming the British Secret Service.  Meanwhile, 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; and Warner Brothers 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. W hat remains to be seen is whether movies will
come out before—or after—the coroner’s report.
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