WOKING, England (Reuters) - A week after a British inquiry ruled that Russian President Vladimir Putin probably approved the murder of an ex-KGB agent in London, a court heard on Thursday that the sudden death of a Russian mafia whistleblower had “potential parallels”.
Alexander Perepilichny, 44, was found dead near his luxury home on the exclusive gated St George’s Hill estate in Weybridge, Surrey, southwest of London, after he had been out jogging in November 2012.
Surrey Police said there was no evidence to suggest a third party had been involved, but last May a pre-inquest hearing heard that traces of a rare and deadly poison from the gelsemium plant had been found in his stomach.
This raised questions as to whether Perepilichny, who had sought refuge in Britain in 2009 and had been helping a Swiss investigation into a Russian money-laundering scheme, had suffered the same fate as ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko.
Last Thursday, an inquiry concluded that Putin had probably given the go-ahead to a Russian intelligence operation to murder Litvinenko, an outspoken Kremlin critic who had also fled to Britain, with the rare radioactive isotope polonium-210 in 2006.
Perepilichny had been providing evidence against those linked to the death of anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky while in custody in Moscow in 2009. Magnitsky had accused Russian government officials of stealing $230 million.
Henrietta Hill, a lawyer representing Hermitage Capital Management that had employed Magnitsky, told another pre-inquest hearing on Thursday that the Perepilichny case had been discussed at the highest levels of the British government.
“The potential parallels between the death of Mr Litvinenko and Mr Perepilichny have been drawn to your attention before,” Hill told the coroner Richard Travers.
“In the same way that Mr Litvinenko was providing testimony to Spanish prosecutors and died before that could be completed, Mr Perepilichny was providing testimony to Swiss prosecutors and died before that could be completed.”
Hill told the coroner’s court that Surrey Police was seeking to keep secret the contents of numerous documents in the case on national security grounds, a move which would prevent them from being considered at a normal inquest.
This material appeared to “go directly to the proposition this man may have been a victim of a reprisal killing”, she said.
“These factors, compounded with what we now know from the Litvinenko report, make this a particularly complicated and sensitive case,” Hill added.
Dijen Basu, the lawyer for Surrey Police, denied there had been any cover-up.
“We are going to show you each of these documents,” he told the coroner, who later rejected Hill’s appeal for a High Court judge to be appointed to oversee the inquest.
The full inquest had been due to start on Feb. 29 but was postponed until Sept. 12.
Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Gareth Jones