Tuesday, December 05, 2006

London-Moscow Spat Deepens

As the Kremlin refuses British police access to Mikhail Trepashkin as a witness in the Litvinenko poisoning case (and also rules out the extradition of suspects), and Andrei Lugovoi checks into hospital again, RFE/RL’s Newsline has some background items on the developing diplomatic crisis between London and Moscow:

Four London Metropolitan Police investigators began work in Moscow on December 5 and plan to speak to possible witnesses in connection with the unexplained death in London on November 23 of British citizen and former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, news.ru reported (see “RFE/RL Newsline,” November 27, and December 1 and 4, 2006). The investigators’ interest reportedly centers on former KGB officer Andrei Lugovoi, who met several times with Litvinenko before his death. British inspectors also want to interview several other people, including former FSB officer Mikhail Trepashkin, who began serving a four-year prison term in Nizhny Tagil in 2004 for allegedly divulging state secrets. But a spokesman for the Federal Corrections Service said in Moscow on December 5 that his department “will not allow a person convicted for divulging state secrets to remain a source of information for representatives of foreign special services,” Interfax reported. Russian officials previously pledged full cooperation with the British investigation. A lawyer for Trepashkin told reporters recently that her client has “information that may shed light on the murder [of Litvinenko], and he is ready to speak out.” PM

In Brussels, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on December 4 that he has warned his British counterpart, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, against anyone “politicizing” the Litvinenko case, Britain’s “The Times” reported on December 5. Lavrov also said that “it is unacceptable that a campaign should be whipped up with the participation of [unnamed British] officials. This is…harming our relations.” He added that he told Beckett of “the necessity to avoid any kind of politicization of this matter.” But also in Brussels, U.K. Home Secretary John Reid stressed that British police “will follow the evidence wherever it goes.” “The Times” reported on December 5 that unspecified “intelligence services in Britain are convinced that the poisoning of…Litvinenko was authorized by the [FSB]. Security sources have told ‘The Times’ that the FSB orchestrated a ‘highly sophisticated plot’ and was likely to have used some of its former agents to carry out the operation on the streets of London.” The paper added that an unnamed “source” told its reporters that “‘we know how the FSB operates abroad and, based on the circumstances behind the death of…Litvinenko, the FSB has to be the prime suspect’ in his death.” The daily argued that “the involvement of a former FSB officer made it easier to lure…Litvinenko to meetings at various locations and to distance its bosses in the Kremlin from being directly implicated in the plot. Intelligence officials say that only officials such as FSB agents would have been able to obtain sufficient amounts of polonium-210, the radioactive substance used to fatally poison…Litvinenko.” But unnamed officials of the Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom) denied on December 4 that any polonium could have left Russia unaccounted for, Russian news agencies reported. The officials added that Rosatom exports polonium to the United States and United Kingdom but has no control over what happens to the substance when it arrives there. PM

Valter Litvinenko, the father of the late Aleksandr Litvinenko, told RFE/RL’s Russian Service in London on December 4 that his son converted to Islam shortly before his death. Valter Litvinenko added that “Sasha had been thinking about becoming a Muslim for some time because he was fairly critical of what had been happening in the hierarchy of our [Russian Orthodox] Church. Deciding to become a Muslim is, of course, a fairly unordinary decision and a crucial one.” The father said that his son told him two days before his death that he had “become a Muslim.” The father replied that “it’s your decision. As long as you don’t become a communist or a Satanist.” London-based Chechen Republic Ichkeria Foreign Minister Akhmed Zakayev told RFE/RL’s Russian Service on December 4 that Aleksandr Litvinenko told him of his desire to embrace Islam. Zakayev added that “I told him it was a purely personal question, that it isn’t important to which god we pray as long as we aren’t doing ignoble acts. And I sort of dropped it.” But Zakayev noted that Litvinenko repeatedly “returned to the subject. He pronounced the shahadah [the fundamental Muslim statement of faith], and any student of Islam will tell you that there are no particular rituals for converting to Islam. All you have to do is say one sura [a verse or chapter from the Koran] and, from that moment, if the person who pronounces this sura, this shahadah, has sincere intentions, from that moment he is considered a Muslim.” Zakayev said that on November 22, at Litvinenko’s request, Zakayev “brought an imam to him. The imam read over him a sura from the Koran, the one that is read over a dying Muslim.” On December 4, the Russian daily “Izvestia” returned to the theory that “Litvinenko was either involved in selling radioactive materials, or somebody was trying to build a portable nuclear device. It’s hard to find any other explanation for the presence of that much polonium in proximity” to him. The daily suggested that the polonium with which Litvinenko had come into contact would have been worth $40 million, which would have made it “the most expensive poisoning in history” had it indeed been a poisoning. On December 5, Britain’s “Financial Times” suggested that “prolonged exposure to Russian conspiracy theories can be damaging to mental health.” PM

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