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Britain to hold public inquiry into ex-spy Litvinenko death

The British government on Tuesday (July 22) announced a public inquiry into the death of Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian dissident who was poisoned in London with radioactive tea in 2006.

LONDON: The British government on Tuesday (July 22) announced a public inquiry to investigate who was behind the death of Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy poisoned with radioactive tea in London in 2006. The move comes as London presses for greater sanctions against Moscow over the downing of a passenger plane in eastern Ukraine and is likely to anger the Kremlin and further chill relations between Britain and Russia.

The inquiry will be able to look at whether the Russian state was behind the mysterious killing of Kremlin critic Litvinenko, which outraged London at the time and plunged relations with Moscow into the deep freeze.

Home Secretary Theresa May, the interior minister, announced the probe would specifically seek to "identify where responsibility for the death lies". "I very much hope that this inquiry will be of some comfort to his widow," she added, in a statement given to parliament.

His widow Marina said on Tuesday she was "relieved and delighted" with the decision to launch a public inquiry.

Litvinenko, 43, a former agent in Russia's FSB intelligence agency who turned against his former masters, was poisoned with radioactive polonium-210 while drinking tea at a London hotel. In a deathbed letter, Litvinenko said he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin was involved in his killing after he publicly criticised the leader, himself an ex-KGB agent.

British police have identified Russian spy-turned-lawmaker Andrei Lugovoi as the chief suspect and have issued an arrest warrant for fellow former agent Dmitri Kovtun in relation to the death, but Moscow has refused to hand them over. They both deny involvement.

Litvinenko's death triggered a deep freeze in diplomatic relations between Britain and Russia which took several years to thaw. The public inquiry move is likely to anger Putin at a time when relations are already under severe strain in the aftermath of the downing of the Malaysia Airlines flight in Ukraine, plus Russia's annexation of Crimea from its neighbour.

"TRUTH WILL WIN OUT"

May originally wanted to wait for the results of a separate inquest into the death, which was begun by senior judge Robert Owen. In English law, inquests are held to examine sudden, violent or unnatural deaths. While they determine the place and time of death as well as how the deceased came by their death, they do not apportion blame. But three High Court judges ruled in February that May must reconsider her decision, following a challenge by Marina Litvinenko.

"It sends a message to Sasha's murderers: no matter how strong and powerful you are, truth will win out in the end and you will be held accountable for your crimes," Marina Litvinenko said. "It has taken nearly eight years to bring those culpable for Sasha's murder to justice. I look forward to the day when the truth behind my husband's murder is revealed for the whole world to see."

Inquest judge Owen himself had called for a public inquiry, saying his work had been undermined and he could not hold a "fair and fearless" inquest, because he was not allowed to see secret evidence about the Kremlin's alleged possible role in the killing. Owen will now chair the public inquiry, May announced.

The terms of reference for the probe are "to conduct an investigation into the death of Alexander Litvinenko in order to ascertain who the deceased was; how, when and where he came by his death; identify where responsibility for the death lies and make appropriate recommendations". But the inquiry will not look at whether the British authorities could or should have taken steps which would have prevented his death.

"The arrangements for the inquiry will now be a matter for Sir Robert Owen," May said in the statement. "I am very grateful to Sir Robert for continuing to lead the independent judicial investigation into Mr Litvinenko's death. It is more than seven years since Mr Litvinenko's death, and I very much hope that this inquiry will be of some comfort to his widow Mrs Litvinenko."

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