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20th Jan 2020

Russian exiles in UK feel unsafe after Litvinenko

  • Browder, who lives in London, has also faced death threats (Photo: davos.ch)

Dissidents who fled to London feel unsafe because the government isn’t holding the Kremlin to account on Litvinenko, according to Bill Browder, a businessman who campaigns for human rights in Russia.

“The British government’s non-reaction, despite the findings of the Litvinenko report, gives the green light for Russia to carry out assassinations in London with impunity,” he told EUobserver on Thursday (21 January) from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

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“It gives Russian government opponents living in London the feeling they’re at risk of being killed.”

Browder spoke after Sir Robert Owen, a former judge, the same day published the findings of an inquiry into the murder in 2006 of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian intelligence officer.

Sir Robert concluded: “The FSB [Russian intelligence] operation to kill Mr Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr Patrushev [the FSB chief] and also by [Russian] president Putin.”

His 328-page report, which cites classified evidence, said two FSB operatives - Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi - killed Litvinenko by putting polonium, a radioactive substance, into a teapot at the Pine Bar in central London on 1 November 2006.

It said they did it because Litvinenko outraged Putin, himself a former FSB chief, by going public with allegations of FSB links to organised crime.

He further angered Putin by saying the Russian leader orchestrated the bombing of Moscow residential buildings in 1999 to justify invading Chechnya and by accusing him of paedophilia.

’Nuclear terrorism'

For his part, Browder described the use of polonium as an act of “nuclear terrorism on British soil”.

He joined Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, in calling for Putin to be put under an EU asset freeze and visa ban. Patrushev is already on an EU blacklist over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“The [Owen] report is very strong. It's helpful in proving why the Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act is the right thing to do,” Browder said, referring to a US law which led to the US blacklisting of Russian officials deemed guilty of conspiring to kill Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian anti-corruption activist.

Browder was Magnitsky’s employer at the time of his death in 2009.

Magnitsky also exposed ties between the FSB and an organised crime syndicate, the Kluyev Group, in embezzling $230 million of Russian taxpayers’ money.

Browder himself has faced death threats. Alexander Perepilichny, a Russian businessman who helped identify EU banks which laundered the stolen money, died in suspicious circumstances in the UK in 2012.

Browder, who is campaigning for an EU version of the Magnitsky act, has close ties with London’s community of Russian exiles, which includes people such as Vladimir Bukovsky, a Soviet-era dissident, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian oil baron turned reformer, and Akhmed Zakayev, a Chechen opposition leader.

'Clear eyes, cold heart'

For her part, the British home secretary, Theresa May, said on Thursday she’d file international arrest warrants for Kovtun and Lugovoi, the alleged Litvinenko killers.

She said British PM David Cameron would raise the matter with Putin “at the earliest opportunity”.

But Cameron, speaking also in Davos, indicated the UK is interested in relaxing the existing EU sanctions on Russia.

“Do we at some level have to go on having some sort of relationship with them [the Russian authorities] because we need a solution to the Syria crisis? Yes, we do. But we do it with clear eyes and a very cold heart,” he said.

The US, which believes Putin is preparing to comply with Ukraine ceasefire obligations, likewise thinks the Owen report uncovered little which was not already known.

Russian authorities, on Thursday, rubbished Sir Robert’s conclusions as “a joke … fine British humour.”

But some British MPs from the opposition Labour Party, such as Andy Burnham, the shadow home secretary, and David Davis, who was home secretary at the time of Litvinenko’s death, echoed Browder.

Burnham said the UK should expel Russian spies and campaign for Russia to lose the 2018 World Cup. Davis said: “We need to go after the financial assets of Putin in the Bahamas and in Cyprus.”

’Insult to justice’

“There are some very prominent politicians in the UK who are also calling for sanctions,” Browder told EUobserver.

Cameron’s reaction is “an insult to criminal justice” he said.

The Owen report cites other murders of Putin’s opponents in recent times, including: Sergei Yushenkov, an opposition activist, shot in Moscow in 2003; Yuri Shchekochikhin, a journalist, poisoned in Moscow in 2003; Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, a Chechen leader, killed by a bomb in Qatar in 2004; and Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist, shot in Moscow in 2006.

The list is much longer, however.

The latest high-level victim was Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader and former deputy PM, shot dead in Moscow in February last year.

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