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Verdict on Putin

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Ingo Mannteufel
January 21, 2016

The British inquiry report into the murder of Litvinenko hit the news like a bomb. But it is legally inconsequential and its political impact will be minimal, writes DW's Ingo Mannteufel.

Russland Alexander Litvinenko
Image: Reuters/V. Djachkov

When the former Russian intelligence officer and, later, Putin opponent Alexander Litvinenko died in London in November 2006 from poisoning with highly radioactive polonium, suspicions immediately arose that public authorities in Russia had a part in his death.

An important indication was the fact that it is difficult for ordinary people to procure this poison, but also because Alexander Litvinenko had been in contact with the Russian suspects, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, before the poisoning.

The two men continue to deny their guilt even today. But Lugovoi and Kovtun were never questioned in London or even charged. Russian authorities refused to extradite them.

No legal accusations, just an accusatory report

Actually, the most interesting aspect of this case is the extent of the Russian intelligence service's (FSB) involvement in the murder, and especially whether FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev and Russian President Vladimir Putin had been directly involved. British authorities tried to find an answer in their elaborate investigation.

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DW's Ingo Mannteufel

As no indictment has been made, Judge Robert Owen, who chaired the inquiry, was allowed - in accordance with British law - to release the report to the public.

Although it does not constitute a legal verdict, Judge Owen reached a spectacular conclusion in his investigation: Apparently, the two main suspects, Lugovoi and Kovtun, had not acted only on the instructions of the Russian FSB intelligence service, but rather, explained Judge Owen in his 300-page report, FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev and Russian President Putin had "probably" approved Litvinenko's murder.

Let us reiterate: After several years of investigating and conducting dozens of interviews with witnesses, a highly respected British judge comes to the conclusion that Russian President Putin had "probably" approved the murder of a political opponent. Consequently, everyone who has been criticizing Kremlin leaders for criminal leanings and complaining about them now feels vindicated. Alexander Litvinenko is not the only critic of the Russian leadership to be murdered since Vladimir Putin came to power. It is hard to imagine a more controversial finding.

Negligible consequences

However, the legal consequences of the published inquiry report are negligible as long as the main suspects are not extradited to Great Britain.

Even the effect on British-Russian ties is limited: Relations between the United Kingdom and Russia have cooled substantially since Litvinenko's murder ten years ago. There is almost no room for a further deterioration of relations.

In a wider political context, the findings of the investigation are a veritable bombshell: In a world of global information networks, the report published by Judge Robert Owen amounts to a de facto verdict against Putin passed by a British court.

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Ingo Mannteufel Head of IT and Cybersecurity@mannteufel