UK court to probe Alexander Litvinenko's death

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LONDON -- A long-awaited inquest into the poisoning death of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko should consider whether Russian authorities were involved, the senior British judge who will oversee it said yesterday.

But the British government will not let lawyers for the victim's family and the suspects see a report on alleged links between Litvinenko and British intelligence.

Litvinenko's family believes the Kremlin was behind his death of radioactive poisoning in London in November 2006. The former security service officer, a critic of the Kremlin, died after drinking tea laced with the rare radioactive isotope polonium-210 at a hotel. On his deathbed, he accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of responsibility.

Ben Emmerson, a lawyer for Litvinenko's widow, Marina, told a court hearing it was vital that the inquest probe "the criminal role of the Russian state." Emmerson said if official Russian involvement was proved, it would constitute "an act of state-sponsored nuclear terrorism on the streets of London."

Judge Robert Owen, who will lead the inquest, said its scope would be decided at a later hearing, but indicated he was inclined to agree it should look at Russia's alleged role. Owen said he would open his inquest as early in 2013 as possible.

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The killing cast a pall over U.K.-Russian relations that still persists. British prosecutors have accused two Russians, Alexander Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, of killing Litvinenko, but Russia refuses to hand them over. Lugovoi is now a Russian lawmaker.

Lawyer Hugh Davies, the inquest's counsel, said the judge-led inquiry should be a "full and fearless" examination. But some evidence, he said, will be withheld at the request of the British government. Davies said all interested parties would be given a police report before the inquest begins. One section will be censored: the results of police inquiries into whether Litvinenko was in contact with Britain's MI6 intelligence service.

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