World / Crime & Legal

Key suspect in Litvinenko death says he'll take part in U.K. inquiry


A prime suspect in the poisoning of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko appears to have broken his silence to say he will cooperate with a British inquiry into the death.

Inquiry attorney Robin Tam said Thursday that a man calling himself Dmitry Kovtun had contacted lawyers and “said he is willing to take part in the inquiry.”

Litvinenko, a KGB officer-turned-Kremlin critic, died after drinking tea laced with radioactive polonium-210 at a London hotel in November 2006.

British police have accused two Russian men — Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi — of the killing. Both deny involvement, and Russia refuses to extradite them.

Judge Robert Owen, who is overseeing the inquiry, said it was “highly regrettable” that Kovtun had waited so long to make contact.

He said Kovtun’s offer couldn’t be an excuse to stretch out the already long-delayed inquiry.

“This matter cannot be allowed to drift on,” the judge said.

It wasn’t immediately clear how Kovtun could participate, but the inquiry has previously invited Kovtun and Lugovoi to give evidence by video link.

Lugovoi has declined to appear, accusing the inquiry of attempting to “whitewash” the involvement of British intelligence in Litvinenko’s death.

On his deathbed, Litvinenko accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of ordering his assassination, and Britain has also alleged that the Russian state was involved.

The killing soured U.K.-Russian relations for years, and the investigation into the death stalled — first because Russia refused to hand over the suspects, then because British authorities would not disclose classified intelligence evidence.

Under the terms of the inquiry, that evidence will be heard in secret, after public hearings end at the Royal Courts of Justice.

Ben Emmerson, lawyer for Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, said Kovtun’s about-face was “an unexpected development.”

“But if that’s what he wants to do, then we would be more than happy to facilitate the opportunity to have a proper chance to question this man about his conduct and his role in the murder of Mr. Litvinenko,” he said.