The findings of the controversial new UK report implicating Russian President Vladimir Putin in the murder of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko are biased, flawed and inconsistent.
Marina Litvinenko, left, the widow of former Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko and her son Anatoly, background, give a statement at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. Photo: AP
The article is first published at The Guardian's The New East network.
An inquiry into the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in the heart of London in 2006 has concluded that he was “probably” murdered on the personal orders of Russian president Vladimir Putin. This is a troubling accusation.
The report said that two Russian agents, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, who were most likely acting on behalf of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), killed Litvinenko, who died from radioactive poisoning.
For a very different take read: "The KGB saga: Putin and the Litvinenko case"
The head of the inquiry, Sir Robert Owen, also came to the conclusion that there was sufficient evidence heard in open court to build a “strong circumstantial case” against the Russian state.
His conclusions mirror those of the late Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who had been living in London waging a campaign against Putin before his own death in 2013. Litvinenko was his chief bomb thrower.
However, even after extensive analysis of the case and close following of the inquiry, it is still unknown whether the Russian president or anyone in the Kremlin actually ordered Litvinenko’s murder. What is known, however, is that Owen’s findings are not supported by reliable evidence.
The report relies on hearsay and is marred by inconsistent logic. It offers no factual insights into what really happened to Litvinenko, yet has been taken as gospel truth by governments and pundits across the West.
There are six problems to keep in mind, all of which are explored further below.
1. Berezovsky’s PR campaign against Putin
The inquiry failed to take into account the massive misinformation campaign initiated by Berezovsky. It was Berezovsky, an archenemy of Putin, who put forward the narrative that the Russian president was behind the poisoning of Litvinenko and fed this to a gullible Western media, with the help of the PR firm Bell Pottinger.
A typical headline of the day was something like “Ex-KGB Spy Murdered on Orders of Putin.” No facts were presented, just unsupported allegations. Berezovsky’s well-funded management of the public discourse set the tone for everything that was to come.
If this had been a jury trial, the media coverage would have prejudiced the case. In the absence of a jury, Berezovsky’s targets included the public, journalists, police and government officials. Yet there was no consideration of the impact of this wide-reaching influence in the report.
2. Inconsistencies in evidentiary standards
The inquiry appears to use different evidentiary standards for different witnesses. On the one hand, Owen claims that he considers some of the evidence submitted by the two alleged assassins, Lugovoi and Kovtun, to be deficient. As a result, he says, he won’t regard as credible any parts of their accounts.
But he applies a different standard to others. For example, a retired physics professor named Norman Dombey testified that a polonium sample contains a characteristic fingerprint that allows it to be traced back to its source.
However, Owen concludes that this fingerprint theory “is flawed and must be rejected.” He does not react to problems with some of Dombey’s testimony by dismissing all of it. In fact, he says that he received valuable evidence from Dombey.
An unreliable narrator
There is also the question of Litvinenko’s dramatic deathbed statement implicating Putin that drew so much international attention. Early media reports suggest the statement was composed by Litvinenko himself and dictated to his associate, Alexander Goldfarb. The inquiry report describes Goldfarb as the co-author of the book Death of a Dissident with Marina Litvinenko. It does not mention that he was a close ally of Berezovsky’s.
Later media reports quote Goldfarb as saying that he wrote the statement himself and checked it with Litvinenko. Another account suggests the statement was drafted by the family lawyer, George Menzies, and discussed with the PR firm Bell Pottinger, acting for Berezovsky.
Which is correct? And even more importantly, the statement does not explain how Litvinenko could possibly have known of the Russian president’s culpability, nor does it offer evidence to back up the allegation.
The report fails to acknowledge that Goldfarb is not an objective observer in this case. For instance, he was also involved in promoting the anti-Putin protests of the punk rock group Pussy Riot. This is important because it suggests that the accusations against Putin form part of a long-running campaign stretching over his entire tenure in the Kremlin.
The report recounts many allegations against him as if they were discrete events rather than seeing them as part of a continuous process. The point here is that the inquiry should have considered Goldfarb’s testimony within a context of a systematic anti-Putin agenda.
The lack of any hard facts, just circumstantial evidence
The report admits that there are no hard facts to support the claims against Putin, noting that, “Evidence of Russian state involvement in most of these deaths is circumstantial.” But “circumstantial” is used here as a euphemism for “factually unsupported.”
The report goes on to suggest that the other allegations against Putin over the years, for example that he was implicated in the murder of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, “establish a pattern of events, which is of contextual importance to the circumstances of Mr. Litvinenko’s death.”
In other words, Owen admits to being influenced by unproven cases in his consideration of culpability in Litvinenko’s death.
The role of Mario Scaramella, an Italian sometimes described as an academic, presented a dilemma for the inquiry. At first Litvinenko publically accused Scaramella of poisoning him to stop him from disclosing information about Russia’s culpability in Politkovskaya’s death. But the story seems to have changed after Berezovsky visited Litvinenko in the hospital, after which his people began saying that Litvinenko had blamed Putin.
There is no evidence that Scaramella was responsible, but the inquiry accepted a strange reasoning for Litvinenko implicating him in the first place. Apparently the former spy was embarrassed to admit that he hadn’t seen Lugovoi and Kovtun as threats, so he initially concocted the allegations against Scaramella to salvage his professional pride.
While this analysis points to serious flaws in the report, it does not present evidence to exonerate Putin. It is not clear, then, whether or not he is to blame. But what happened to the presumption of innocence and the need to build a case before declaring someone guilty?
It is clear that those who are behind these claims against the Russian president have an agenda, and are using a wealth of means in their attempts to convince others.
The public inquiry’s acceptance of so many of their questionable allegations casts a pall over Owen’s efforts and renders his report practically useless.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.
The article is first published at The Guardian's The New East network.