LONDON — A coroner overseeing a British inquest into the 2006 poisoning death of Alexander Litvinenko ruled Friday he has to exclude evidence on whether the Russian state was involved in the killing, drawing bitter criticism from the former Russian security agent's widow and adding further doubts to an already much-delayed probe.
In his ruling Friday, coroner Robert Owen said he accepted an application made by British Foreign Secretary William Hague to keep some evidence surrounding the case secret on national security grounds. The decision means that Owen can't consider documents relating to Russia's alleged role in the agent's death, as well as material about whether British security officials could have done anything to prevent it.
Litvinenko, a 43-year-old former agent turned Kremlin critic, died in November 2006, after drinking tea laced with the radioactive isotope polonium-210 at a London hotel. His family says he was working for Britain's intelligence services at the time of his death. Britain accuses two Russians of the killing, but Moscow has refused to extradite the men, who both denied the charges.
Lawyers for Litvinenko's widow, Marina, said Friday she was "utterly dismayed by the coroner's decision to abandon his search for the truth about Russian state responsibility for her husband's death."
"This is a very sad day for Mrs. Litvinenko, a tragedy for British justice which has until now been respected around the world, and it is a frightening precedent for all of those, around the world, who have been trying so hard to expose the crimes committed by conspiracy of organized criminals that operate from the Kremlin," the lawyers said in a statement.
An inquest into the case was initially planned to open this month, but the procedures have been repeatedly stalled because of delays in disclosing evidence.
Hague earlier made the application to withhold evidence by claiming "public interest immunity." The substance of what the documents contained wasn't disclosed to the public.
Owen conceded that the two issues now being excluded from the inquest – possible Russian state culpability and Britain's possible role in preventing the killing – were "of central importance." Trying to continue the inquest without addressing these issues will inevitably lead to an "incomplete, inadequate and potentially misleading" inquiry, he added.
The coroner said he would consider inviting the government to instead hold a separate inquiry that could hear the sensitive evidence.
Inquests are held in Britain to determine the facts about violent or unexplained deaths. In Litvinenko's case, the inquest did not start taking shape until almost five years after the death because for a time authorities believed they could bring criminal prosecutions against the two Russian suspects.
Sylvia Hui can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/sylviahui