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UK inquiry to probe Russia's role in death of ex-spy Litvinenko

Russia has a case to answer over the death of a former spy poisoned with radioactive tea in London, a British judge said Thursday (July 31) as he opened a public inquiry into the highly sensitive affair.

LONDON: Russia has a case to answer over the death of a former spy poisoned with radioactive tea in London, a British judge said Thursday (July 31) as he opened a public inquiry into the highly sensitive affair.

Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-agent in Russia's FSB intelligence agency who became a vocal Kremlin critic, died after ingesting polonium-210 at a London hotel in 2006. He was 43. British police have named Russian spy-turned-lawmaker Andrei Lugovoi as the chief suspect along with fellow former secret agent Dmitri Kovtun but Moscow has refused to extradite them.

Litvinenko accused President Vladimir Putin of being linked to his killing in a posthumous statement and the inquiry comes at a time of tense relations between Russia and the West over the Ukraine crisis.

Judge Robert Owen formally opened the public inquiry at the High Court in London, watched by the Russian's widow Marina and son Anatoly. He said British government material had already established "a prima facie case that the Russian state was responsible for Mr Litvinenko's death, a view that I myself have subsequently endorsed". Owen added that questions over Russian responsibility would be of "central importance" to the inquiry.

The format of the hearings means that, for the first time, secret intelligence documents will be able to be considered by the court, albeit behind closed doors. "Her Majesty's government holds some documents that are relevant to Mr Litvinenko's death but are of such sensitivity that they cannot be used in open court," Owen said. "The most important issue to which this sensitive material relates is that of Russian state responsibility for Mr Litvinenko's death."

Britain's responsibility for protecting Litvinenko, who fled to Britain in 2000, will not be part of the investigation as Owen said there was no suggestion of failings by London on that front. The main inquiry is not expected to get under way until January and is likely to last until the end of next year.

Marina Litvinenko described the opening of the inquiry as "a very special day". "It's important because the question why, who killed my husband has not been answered," she told reporters outside court. "Everybody all around the world will know the truth."

'No link to MH17'

The judge began on Thursday by formally suspending a previous inquest -- a hearing which examines how someone dies but does not apportion blame -- and opening the more comprehensive public inquiry. The British government's decision to launch a full inquiry was a major turnaround after what Owen described as an inquest "plagued by delays".

Ministers previously resisted calls from Litvinenko's family for a public inquiry on the grounds of protecting sensitive information about Russian and British intelligence. But three High Court judges ruled in February that Home Secretary Theresa May must reconsider that decision and an inquiry was announced last week.

Russia's ambassador to London, Alexander Yakovenko, has said Moscow will not accept the judgement of the inquiry if any of the evidence is given in secret.

Britain has strenuously denied any link between the decision to launch the probe and the ratcheting up of international pressure on Russia over the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine earlier this month. Marina Litvinenko said that while she thought the "political situation" may have contributed to the decision, she did not think there was any political involvement in the legal process.

Both Lugovoi and Kovtun deny involvement in her husband's death, with Lugovoi calling the investigations politically motivated.

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