Published 21-05-2013, 04:23
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.
London coroner Robert Owen is fiercely pursuing a mission of his own. He wants to know who murdered Alexander Litvinenko. There's just one problem with his crusade. It's never been officially established that homicide was involved in the death.
Litvinenko is the reputed Russian spy who died suspiciously in London in 2006. It is perhaps equally suspicious that now almost seven years after his death there's been no verdict on what happened to him. Was his death an accident, a suicide, a murder? It's all still undecided. And ironically Owen himself is the official who is supposed to decide.
But Owen is not addressing his duty. He's thrown the rules out the window, and is off on a who-done-it adventure. The hearings he's convened have been filled with his quest to ascertain culpability. Yet the question of what actually happened to Litvinenko still begs for an answer. The autopsy report has not been made public. The coroner has not issued a death certificate.
Proof that Owen has gone rogue is found in the rules for his office. According to the Ministry of Justice, the purpose of a coroner's inquest is "not to apportion blame, but to answer four questions: (1) Who died? (2) When they died? (3) Where they died? (4) How they died?" The rules emphatically state that the proceedings and evidence at an inquest "shall be directed solely to ascertaining" those specific matters. To make things perfectly clear, coroners are also instructed that "neither the coroner nor the jury shall express any opinion on any other matters."
As if that wasn't clear enough, the rules continue: "No verdict shall be framed in such a way as to appear to determine any question of criminal liability on the part of a named person, or civil liability."
Those are the published rules. Owen seems to be doing everything the rules tell him not to do. He's looking for a culprit.
But now Owen's rouge investigation into culpability has hit a snag. The British government has refused to disclose certain relevant documents to the inquest on the basis of state secrecy. The rules for coroners prevent inquests from examining such evidence in private. Owen claims he can't properly do his job without the secret information. As a result, he's suggesting that his crusade be transferred from the coroner's office to a special inquiry that would be empowered by the Secretary of State. There, evidence could be heard behind closed doors. That would allow Owen to continue his who-done-it adventure.
Somehow it does not seem to matter to Owen that finding the murderer of someone who may not have been murdered is a ridiculous-looking pursuit.
Of the four questions the coroner is supposed to answer, only one remains unanswered. It is how Litvinenko died. Why won't Owen answer the question?
It has been widely reported that the ingestion of radioactive polonium was the cause of death. Was it? If it wasn't polonium, what was the cause of death? Why won't Owen answer the question? The details are in the autopsy report. Why won't Owen make it public?
Extensive media coverage has also been given to reports that Litvinenko was murdered. Was he? Some reports say the Russian state killed him. Others blame the late Boris Berezovsky, the fugitive Russian tycoon who was hiding out in London. Irrespective of who might have done it, is there evidence that the death was a homicide? Can suicide or accident or other manners of death be excluded? Why won't Owen answer these questions either?
If he doesn't have conclusive evidence, the coroner's rules indicate that he should conclude an "open verdict." That's the correct response when there is insufficient evidence for any other verdict. Either Owen has evidence or he doesn't. Why is he shirking away from reaching a conclusion?
It may be because there's more to this than meets the eye. The British government has two areas of conflicted interests in the Litvinenko case.
The first is the matter of "preventability." Litvinenko is widely alleged to have been working for British security services. Did they have knowledge of circumstances that were likely to lead to his death? Could they have intervened in a way that could have prevented it? And did they fail to exercise that responsibility?
If the British government is culpable in that regard, does that make it vulnerable to legal action by Litvinenko's widow and child? Is the government acting to protect itself from that?
The second matter is the allegations made by the Crown Prosecution Service about Russian culpability in Litvinenko's death. They seem to have been based on accusations made by Berezovsky and his associates. Their claims have been shown, however, to be without a basis in fact. They were specious. I described all this in my book, The Phony Litvinenko Murder. Was the British government bamboozled by Berezovsky? And does it now wish to avoid the humiliation of that being officially exposed?
I think Robert Owen owes the British public and the world community a verdict on the job he was tasked to do. He should issue a finding on the cause of death, and he should specify the manner of death if one is known. And Owen should do all that before he flits off to continue his personal who-done-it adventure in a different venue.