Published 4-03-2013, 05:40
William Dunkerley is a media business analyst and consultant based in New Britain, CT. He works extensively with media organizations in Russia and other post-communist countries, and has advised government leaders on strategies for building press freedom and a healthy media sector. He is a Senior Fellow at the American University in Moscow.
The British case against the Russian state in the Alexander Litvinenko matter seems to be teetering on the verge of collapse. Litvinenko is a reputed former Russian spy who died in London in 2006 suspiciously of poisoning. The London coroner has been unable to reach a conclusion on whether the death was a homicide. Nevertheless for years the government has been pursuing a legal case that contends Litvinenko was murdered at the behest of the Russian government.
The London coroner's court held pre-inquest hearings on February 27 and 28. The coroner claims to be trying to find out what really happened to Litvinenko. But the recent hearings didn't seem to clear the air on any key issue.
All along, the basis of the government's case has seemed to be nothing more than specious allegations of Boris Berezovsky and his associates. Berezovsky is a fugitive Russian billionaire hiding out in London. Now new actions by his team are further muddling the British proceedings. They are contending that Russia and Britain are conspiring to suppress potentially relevant secret British documents.
That alleged collusion, however, looks like a hoax. I could find no record of any statement from a Russian official supporting the claim or advocating for a lack of transparency. The news reports are filled with the contentions of the Berezovsky people. What they are saying appears to be sheer fabrication. But world news outlets have fallen for the phony story hook, line, and sinker.
The Berezovsky team has been long involved in advancing scurrilous allegations against Russia and its president through the media. They've painted quite a dismal picture, albeit one not based on facts. Now it looks like they have made a pawn of the British legal system in the Litvinenko case to further their aims.
The Russian-British collusion claim arose on February 25, when the Guardian reported that British media groups joined together in a legal challenge. They are fighting attempts by British foreign secretary William Hague to conceal sensitive documents. Hague contends that disclosure could harm the British public and national interests.
Guardian journalist Luke Harding relied on statements from Berezovsky associate Alexander Goldfarb who took issue with Hague's rationale. Goldfarb asserted, "[Hague's] afraid Putin will not vote the way he wants in the UN or squeeze Britain's interests." But Goldfarb didn't say where he obtained that information.
Goldfarb is the guy who claimed in 2006 that Litvinenko dictated to him a deathbed allegation that Putin was behind his poisoning. That turned out to be a hoax, too. Goldfarb later confessed that the so-called deathbed statement contained his words, not Litvinenko's. It is puzzling why Harding would rely upon such a questionable source.
Lawyer Ben Emmerson also chimed in. He's widely reported to have been paid by Berezovsky to represent the widow Litvinenko. Emmerson joined Goldfarb in accusing British leaders of being in cahoots with the Kremlin. He called it a cover-up to avoid antagonizing President Vladimir Putin. Emmerson said the British are "dancing to the Russian tarantella."
It is interesting that Emmerson should talk of the appearance of collusion. Ken MacDonald, the prosecutor who alleged Russian state involvement in Litvinenko's death in 2006, was a founding partner with Emmerson at the law firm where the two still work. MacDonald had taken leave from the firm to become Britain's chief prosecutor from 2003 to 2008. He oversaw the formulation of the prosecution's position in the Litvinenko case.
It was during MacDonald's tenure that Berezovsky leveled his allegations against Putin. A British newspaper headline, referencing Berezovsky, cried out "Putin tried to kill my friend, claims Russian billionaire." Berezovsky offered no facts to substantiate his claim And likewise the British prosecution service hasn't shown much evidence beyond Berezovsky's allegation.
In October 2011, MacDonald, by then the former prosecutor, told the New York Times that he has the "gravest suspicions" of Moscow's involvement in the Litvinenko case. Surely grave suspicions do not constitute evidence under British law. But it looks like the British case doesn't really amount to anything more than Berezovsky's unsupported claims and a British prosecutor's hunch that the allegations are true.
But why would the Berezovsky camp want to foist upon the public that fake claim of Russian-British collusion to suppress relevant secret documents? There's some speculation that accusing the British of conspiring with Russia is just an attempt to pressure authorities to release the information. The Berezovsky team has been pushing hard for the release. It's unclear why this is such a big issue for them. Presumably they don't know what's in the documents and whether they would help or hurt in advancing their accusations against Putin.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Litvinenko clamors for justice for her long-deceased husband. But what about justice for Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun? They are two Russian citizens who live under the suspicion of murder charges based on MacDonald's case. How will they ever receive justice in Britain? The charges appear to have stemmed from fraudulent allegations and mere grave suspicions.
So it seems that the entire Litvinenko murder saga reported in the press was originally touched off by statements of Berezovsky's. Were they reliable? The answer came last year during a civil trial in London involving Berezovsky. The presiding judge issued an official finding: Berezovsky is "inherently unreliable."
That means the whole prosecution case seems based upon the rantings of a person who can't be trusted. With all the current and past shenanigans in London over the Litvinenko case, who is going to consider whatever verdict might be returned to be credible? That's why the case teeters on the verge of collapse.
The media group's request for full disclosure will be given further consideration by the court. Some of the secret information may get released.
But, I think they should stop squabbling about whether or not to release it and just close the case. It has been bungled beyond the point of believability.