Supporters Abandon Rogue Coroner in British Litvinenko Case

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Supporters Abandon Rogue Coroner in British Litvinenko Case
Published 6-06-2013, 14:53

William Dunkerley

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 Sir Robert Owen has lost his prime supporters. He's been presiding over an inquest into the 2006 murder of reputed former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko. 

Until recently, Owen has had the firm support of Litvinenko's widow, Marina. For almost seven years now, she has been awaiting official word on what caused her husband's suspicious death. In February, commenting on coroner Owen, Mrs. Litvinenko told reporters, "I believe he will find what happened with my husband." She indicated that she trusted Owen.

But by May, she had thrown up her hands in disgust. According to the Independent, "The widow of former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko has called for the inquest into her late husband's death to be abandoned and for a public inquiry to be held in its place." 

The Huffington Post reported that Mrs. Litvinenko accused the coroner of abandoning "his search for the truth about Russian state responsibility for her husband's death." 

The notion that Owen had been trying to pin responsibility for Litvinenko's death on the Russian state is actually quite problematic. For one thing, the British rules for coroners specifically forbid determining criminal liability. Owen seems to have ignored all that and just went rogue, conducting a who-done-it investigation under the guise of a coroner's inquest.

The other problem is the very allegation of Russian state involvement itself. It originated with the late Boris Berezovsky, a fugitive Russian oligarch who was hiding out in London. He admittedly was trying to incite a violent revolution back in Russia to oust Russian president Vladimir Putin. Before Litvinenko had even died, Berezovsky was floating the story that Putin was to blame. 

What followed was an expertly executed campaign to bamboozle the media into believing and reporting on Berezovsky's fabricated story. There were no facts behind it. Just a lot of money to dupe the media and their audiences. I don't know whether the Russian state was involved or not in the death. But Berezovsky's unsubstantiated allegations offer no insight.

Berezovsky apparently duped the British prosecutor, too. It was Lord Ken MacDonald who headed up the Crown Prosecution Service during the Litvinenko investigation. After he had left office, he told the New York Times that he had the "gravest suspicions" of Russian state involvement. Was that the best that the investigation could produce, grave suspicions? They certainly don't constitute evidence. It sounds like MacDonald had fallen victim to Berezovsky's phony story.

In addition to losing Mrs. Litvinenko's confidence, Robert Owen seems to have lost the support of the people who recommended, nominated, and appointed him to the coroner's job. 

I wrote to those three individuals asking what they think of the job Owen is doing. My letter said,

"You may know that it has recently been brought out that this coroner (Robert Owen) does not seem to be doing his job properly. It appears that instead of seeking evidence on the manner and cause of death, he is conducting a criminal investigation to determine culpability for the Litvinenko death. Do you condone that deviation from the rules set forth for coroners and for the conduct of inquests?"

In response I heard from a spokesman for the coroner who appointed Owen, Dr. Shirley Radcliffe. She declined to come to Owen's defense. The spokesman told me Radcliffe believes "it would not be appropriate for one coroner to comment on the work of another." Radcliffe had appointed Owen on nomination of the Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling. Lord Chief Justice for England and Wales, Baron Igor Judge had recommended Owen to Grayling. Neither of them would come out in support of Owen, either.

Mrs. Litvinenko's expectation that Owen could uncover criminal liability in her husband's death may have come from a misunderstanding of the law. And she may have been swayed out of respect for Berezovsky into believing his unfounded allegations. After all, Berezovsky had employed her husband, was paying for the private school education of her son, and had provided the house in which the Litvinenko family had lived.

Owen has already spent almost $2,000,000 of British tax payers' money on his fanciful who-done-it inquiry. He's produced no definitive result. His work has been such a fiasco that there is little chance that any findings could seriously be believed. I agree with Mrs. Litvinenko that the Owen inquest should be terminated.

First, though, Owen should turn his attention to the job he was hired to do. Was the death a homicide, a suicide, an accident, or is there insufficient evidence to know? The widow Litvinenko is entitled, I believe, to know what really happened to her husband. Owen needs to do the right and honorable thing. He should do his job and issue a verdict. And he should do it expeditiously. The fact that this has dragged out for going-on-seven years since Litvinenko's death is simply shameful.
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