ROME (Reuters) - It’s been a harsh homecoming for Mario Scaramella, the Italian contact of murdered former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko.
With the blessing of British police investigating Litvinenko’s poisoning from radioactive polonium, Scaramella flew back to Italy on Christmas Eve -- only to end up in a Rome jail ever since.
According to court documents obtained by Reuters, Scaramella is accused by prosecutors of deceiving Italian police about an assassination plot back home and even impersonating a spy.
One witness portrays Scaramella, 36, using his role as a parliamentary KGB consultant to try to dig up dirt on politicians, including Prime Minister Romano Prodi.
“We’re dealing with an absolutely untrustworthy individual,” wrote prosecutors in their lengthy justification for Scaramella’s arrest. They added their investigation had shown Scaramella “constructs false accounts for his own purposes”.
Scaramella denies wrongdoing and his lawyer says his accusations came from reliable sources, like Litvinenko.
A judge last week denied Scaramella bail, citing fears he might flee.
Litvinenko’s painful death from radiation poisoning drew a worldwide audience to his fierce criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he accused of ordering his assassination.
The Kremlin dismissed the charge as ridiculous. British police are investigating the case as murder, and have visited Moscow to gather evidence, including from two Russians who like Scaramella met Litvinenko in London on the day he was poisoned.
The investigation in Italy has thrown new light on the relationship between Scaramella and Litvinenko.
The dead man’s brother Maxim, who lives in Italy, told investigators that Scaramella wanted to use Litvinenko as a source for his research into Italian politicians and allegations of links to the Russian security services.
Litvinenko obliged. According to Maxim’s testimony, one of the last things he did for Scaramella was sit down in front of a video camera last spring in Rome and repeat an accusation that Prodi may have had ties to Russian intelligence.
Litvinenko sought assurances that the video would not be leaked to the press, and warned that he personally knew nothing about Prodi, Maxim told investigators.
But then, cameras rolling, Litvinenko said former FSB deputy chief Anatoly Trofimov warned him in 2000 that he should not move to Italy because Prodi was “one of their men”.
“My brother said he didn’t have any documents against Prodi or other Italian authorities,” Maxim told investigators.
“He said only that he had spoken with a general from the Russian secret services ... (who) responded that in Italy there was Prodi, then-president of the European Commission, who was one of their men.”
Maxim said he was paid 200 euros ($265.5) cash to translate on the day Scaramella recorded the video. Scaramella paid Litvinenko 500-600 euros to cover travel expenses.
Prodi last week said parliamentary commissions like the one Scaramella worked for should not be created to “slaughter political adversaries.” His office has also sent out a statement warning it would sue anyone who slandered him.
The accusations against Prodi, potentially groundless by Litvinenko’s own admission, and impossible to verify since Trofimov was dead, were not included in the parliamentary commission’s conclusions before it was disbanded last year.
They have also been given no weight in Italy, where Italian newspapers have widely, and skeptically reported on Litvinenko’s supposed comments in articles that criticize Scaramella.
It is still unclear why Litvinenko chose to lend his face to the accusations, although a friend of his suggested that Scaramella had simply worn him down.
“In the end, (Litvinenko) decided to tell Scaramella what Scaramella wanted to hear,” Oleg Gordievsky, a top KGB spy stationed in London who defected to the west in 1985, said in an interview with Italy’s La Repubblica daily.
Scaramella once wanted to be a spy, but his repeated offers to collaborate with Italy’s secret services were all rejected in the 1990s, the government says.
According to the court documents, his first dealing with real-world agents as a parliamentary consultant went badly. In 2003, he paid 5,000-6,000 euros for old, useless information on Italian corporate links to Russian intelligence.
But the prosecution’s case against Scaramella, the reason he is in jail, centers on Scaramella’s accounts to police of a plot against his life by an ex-Ukrainian agent.
Prosecutors suspect Scaramella may have made it all up to pressure the ex-agent to give him information, or possibly to make himself seem more credible as a parliamentary consultant.
The ex-agent, Alexander Talik, declined to comment when contacted by Reuters. But in court documents, Talik said Scaramella once even asked him to sign a letter making false accusations against an unidentified Russian.
The private meeting took place after Scaramella had told police Talik was trying to kill him.
“He showed me the police statement and then showed me a letter that I should have signed,” Talik told police.
“But I didn’t do it because they were lies.”