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Russian Government Killed Former KGB Agent, Says European Court Of Human Rights

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The European Court of Human Rights says Russia's government is responsible for the 2006 killing in London of Alexander Litvinenko. He was a former KGB-agent-turned-exiled-dissident. British police say he was murdered by two Russian operatives who poisoned his tea with a radioactive element. Now, although both men and the Kremlin denied responsibility, the European court has essentially confirmed the findings of the British investigation. Joining us from Moscow is NPR's Charles Maynes.

And, Charles, I want to start with Alexander Litvinenko himself. Why would the Kremlin want him dead?

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Well, Litvinenko worked for the Soviet and later Russian security services before defecting to the United Kingdom when he was granted asylum. And so he was essentially a security-officer-turned-dissident-whistleblower. He began discussing really sensitive matters inside Russia, including a series of apartment bombings that date back to 1999 that he blamed on President Vladimir Putin, who, of course, has his own KGB past.

Now, in 2006, Litvinenko was poisoned with the radioactive isotope polonium. This is as he met with some people in a London hotel. He died a few weeks later and, before his death, blamed the attack on Vladimir Putin. A British investigation found later that the assassination had been carried out by two Russian nationals, Andrei Lugovoi and Sergei Kovtun, who had both been acting on behalf of someone. The investigation stopped short of naming who.

CORNISH: How did the European court investigation add to that picture?

MAYNES: Well, it essentially takes it a step further, right? It's found that, beyond a reasonable doubt, the assassination had been carried out by Lugovoi and Kovtun, which maybe isn't news. The court also found that there was no reason to doubt that they weren't agents of the Russian state. It noted that the Russian government had failed to provide any convincing explanation of events, counter the U.K. findings or effectively investigate the murder, and it ordered Russia to pay Litvinenko's widow a little over $100,000.

CORNISH: Can we talk more about his widow? I understand that she's spoken publicly.

MAYNES: Yeah. She was on Echo of Moscow radio today via London. I should say she was piped in by Skype. And this is after the ruling, saying that the actual guilty verdict is what counts for her. Let's listen to just a bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARINA LITVINENKO: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: You know, she called today's ruling a brick in the foundation of bringing some measure of accountability to other high-profile cases where the Russian government or even President Putin has been implicated and said, really, it was the guilty verdict that counted here.

CORNISH: Has there been any other kind of response from the Kremlin?

MAYNES: Well, the Kremlin has always denied involvement in this case, and its spokesman today said it found the ruling unconvincing. He said that the ECHR, the European court, had no authority. The two Russian alleged assassins have also denied involvement. They argue that Litvinenko tried to poison them. In other words, they flipped the script here. Lugovoi today called the ruling idiotic and politically biased. It's worth pointing out that as this scandal broke back in 2006, he quickly became a member of the Russian parliament, which he is to this day.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, there's been an important development in another alleged poisoning of a former KGB officer. Can you tell us more about that?

MAYNES: Yeah. The court findings fell on the same day that British authorities added a third Russian to face charges in a separate 2018 poisoning attack, this time carried against former Kremlin spy Sergei Skripal in the British city of Salisbury. That one involved the nerve toxin Novichok. Now, this is a coincidence that these two findings came on the same day that the Kremlin, no doubt, will point as evidence that this is all politically motivated and always has been.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Charles Maynes.

Charles, thank you.

MAYNES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALT-J SONG, "3WW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.