By Peter Finn and Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 6, 2006
MOSCOW, Dec. 5 -- British detectives visiting Russia to investigate the poisoning death of a former Russian intelligence officer in London will face broad restrictions in their work here, a senior Russian official said Tuesday.
Prosecutor General Yury Chaika said his subordinates, not the British, would conduct any interrogations. He ruled out the extradition of possible suspects who are Russian citizens and said British investigators could not meet an imprisoned lawyer and former officer in the FSB, a successor agency of the KGB, who claims to have vital information.
A key witness checked into a hospital Tuesday, raising questions about when, and whether, investigators from Scotland Yard would be able to see him.
Some British politicians quickly criticized the restrictions. "If they don't allow access, the world at large will wonder, why not?" lawmaker David Davis, a leading member of the opposition Conservative Party, said in an interview. But he cautioned that it was too early to know exactly how much cooperation British investigators would get.
At a news conference in Moscow, Chaika smacked down any notion that the British police could go wherever their investigation leads them, as British Home Secretary John Reid put it in London on Sunday. Even allowing for the normal sensitivities in any country about allowing foreign police on home turf, Chaika was unequivocal in mapping out the secondary function of his British counterparts.
"They may participate with our consent, and we might also withhold our consent," said Chaika, whose position is equivalent to that of attorney general.
Several British detectives flew into Moscow on Monday night to probe any Russian connection to the Nov. 1 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko with polonium-210. The radioactive isotope brought on the former domestic security officer's death Nov. 23 after a slow and gruesome deterioration in his condition.
Litvinenko, 43, was part of a London circle of Russian exiles fiercely critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a deathbed statement, Litvinenko accused the Kremlin of ordering his killing, a charge that authorities here labeled baseless and absurd.
Among those the British had planned to interview is Andrei Lugovoy, a Russian entrepreneur and former KGB officer who met with Litvinenko in a bar at the Millennium Hotel in London the day of the poisoning.
Lugovoy spoke to officials at the British Embassy in Moscow and denied any involvement in the poisoning. His attorney, Andrei Romashov, said he was tested last week for radiation contamination and got a clean bill of health at a Moscow clinic. But the Russian newspaper Kommersant, quoting the attorney, said Lugovoy had checked into a hospital with his wife and three children, who were with him in London, for fresh tests.
"I cannot say if he's ready to meet with the British investigators," Romashov said.
British police are also interested in meeting with Dmitry Kovtun, a business consultant, and Vyacheslav Sokolenko, who heads an association of security agencies. Both men also met Litvinenko at the Millennium Hotel with Lugovoy.
The British also want to meet with Mikhail Trepashkin, a former FSB officer who is serving a four-year sentence on charges of divulging state secrets. Trepashkin, like Litvinenko, had investigated a series of apartment bombings in Russia in 1999 that were among the triggers for a second war between Russian forces and separatists in the southern republic of Chechnya.
Trepashkin accused his former colleagues in the security services of organizing the bombings. Human rights groups including Amnesty International have expressed concern that he was prosecuted to stop his unsanctioned inquiry.
Trepashkin's lawyers released a letter in which the prisoner asserted that the FSB had created a list of people, including Litvinenko, who should be assassinated, and he requested a meeting with the British, saying he had relevant information about the case.
A spokesman for the Russian prison system told the Russian news agency Interfax that such a meeting would not happen. "The Federal Penitentiary Service will not allow a person convicted for divulging state secrets to remain a source of information for representatives of foreign special services," the spokesman said.
Chaika ridiculed the idea. "Seven hundred thousand people are prisoners as Trepashkin is, let's interrogate 400,000 of them, what if they tell something," he said.
A prison administrator filed a request with a Russian court Tuesday asking that Trepashkin be transferred to a more secure prison, Interfax reported.
Lynne Featherstone, a member of the British Parliament who said Litvinenko was one of her constituents, said there is so much speculation in the case that Russia should fully cooperate to "lift the cloud."
"Nothing is solved by leaving it in the dark," she said.
Chaika also said any suspects would be tried in Russia. Extradition has long been a touchy subject between London and Moscow. British courts have refused to hand over Boris Berezovsky, an exiled Russian tycoon who clashed with Putin, and Akhmed Zakayev, a Chechen separatist who received asylum in Britain. Both men were close associates of Litvinenko.
"The British side will sooner or later be forced to extradite them, because every day there is more and more evidence that they have committed crimes," Chaika said. "This is actually a case where there are political motives for their non-extradition."
Chris Bryant, a Labor Party member of the British Parliament, said in an interview that "I think there is a feeling in Russia that we are behaving outrageously" by not extraditing Berezovsky and others wanted by Russia, but that a judge had ruled those prosecutions were politically motivated.
Jordan reported from London.