(Adds quotes, details, background)
By Dasha Afanasieva and Michael Holden
LONDON, Dec 13 - The Russian government was most likely
involved in the murder by poisoning of Kremlin critic and former
spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006, a British lawyer
told a preliminary hearing into the death on Thursday.
The statement by Hugh Davies, an attorney acting on behalf
of the inquest, is likely to enrage Russia, which has denied any
involvement in the killing, and could put further strain on
London's already testy relations with Moscow.
The London court also heard the former KGB agent was working
for Britain's MI6 secret service when he died, suggesting the
British government might come under scrutiny for failing to
Litvinenko, who had been granted British citizenship and
become a vocal critic of the Kremlin, died in 2006 after someone
slipped polonium-210, a rare radioactive isotope, into his cup
of tea at a London hotel.
"Our assessment is that the (British) government material
does establish a prima facie case as to the culpability of the
Russian state in the death of Alexander Litvinenko," Davies said
at Thursday's hearing, held to discuss the scope of the full
inquiry into Litvinenko's death.
British police and prosecutors say there is enough evidence
to charge two former KGB agents, Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitry
Kovtun, but Moscow has resisted calls to extradite them.
A Kremlin spokesman and the Russian foreign ministry both
declined comment and there was no reaction from either Lugovoy
Russian officials have said the British focus on Lugovoy as
the suspect stems from what it sees as London's anti-Russian
bias and that Britain has failed to provide enough evidence.
The inquest is the latest twist in Britain's complicated
ties with Russia. The two are at odds over Moscow's human rights
record and foreign policy, with spy rows and tit-for-tat
diplomatic expulsions dominating relations.
The full inquest into Litvinenko's death, led by Judge
Robert Owen, is expected to start on May 1.
Ben Emmerson, lawyer for Litvinenko's widow, Marina, told
the hearing the victim had been working for Britain's Secret
Intelligence Service, known as MI6, for a number of years.
He said Litvinenko was also employed by the Spanish security
services and the couple had payments from both MI6 and Spanish
intelligence agencies in their joint bank account.
"At the time of his death, Mr Litvinenko had been for a
number of years a registered and paid agent and employee of MI6,
with a dedicated handler whose pseudonym was 'Martin'," Emmerson
Litvinenko would often tell his wife about the meetings he
had with 'Martin', which would normally take place in central
London, Emmerson said.
MI6 role gave Litvinenko "dangerous" missions - a revelation
suggesting that the British government had a duty to ensure his
PHONE CALL TO LUGOVOY
Adding further intrigue, he said Litvinenko called Lugovoy
in 2006 from a London hospital just months before he died to
cancel a trip to Spain where the two had planned to give
evidence to Spanish prosecutors assessing Russian mafia
activities and links to the Kremlin.
Emmerson said "Martin" had to appear before the inquest as
he was "a critical witness on all issues".
He described the death as a "state sponsored assassination"
and suggested the Russian state would seek "interested party"
status, meaning it would have legal representation at the
inquest and access to relevant documents.
Litvinenko was an associate of tycoon Boris Berezovsky, a
former Kremlin insider who became a critic of President Vladimir
Putin and was granted asylum in Britain.
Some in Russia, where Berezovsky is an unpopular figure
often mocked on state television, have pointed figures at the
exiled oligarch but Hugo Keith, Berezovsky's lawyer, denied any
involvement by his client.
"It's not open to an individual to get Polonium-210. The
suggestion that Mr Berezovsky is responsible is implausible,"
Davies said the secret British documents also showed no
compelling evidence against Berezovsky, or against Chechen mafia
or other figures who have been suggested as being involved.
He also said there was no prima facie evidence to suggest
Britain had been involved in Litvinenko' death or failed to
Under British law, an inquest is held when a person dies
unexpectedly to determine the cause of death.
Marina, who had been campaigning for an inquest for years,
said she was hopeful. "It has already been six years," she said
outside the court. "I'm looking forward to see and to know".
(Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Angus MacSwan)