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By John Helmer, Moscow
  @bears_with

Under threat of formal investigation for breaking the law and lying to the press, David Ridley (lead image), the English county coroner in charge of investigating the alleged Novichok poisoning death of Dawn Sturgess, has announced a new inquest hearing. This week through the coroner’s office in Salisbury, a new date was confirmed:  the next court session is scheduled to take place on February 18, 2020.  Sturgess died on July 8, 2018.

Asked to explain his reason for another four months of delay, Ridley refused to say that fresh evidence in the case has been found, or is expected to be uncovered by continuing police investigation. Instead, he has asked the press spokesman for the Wiltshire County Council to claim on his behalf that there is “complex legal argument in respect of which the Senior Coroner needs to give appropriate and careful consideration to before handing down a written ruling”.

The coroner’s silence signals that after fifteen months of investigation by one of the largest police, military and intelligence service operations in recent British forensic history, the allegation that there was a Russian chemical warfare attack in England last year cannot be substantiated in a court of law. 

The story of British Government allegations that a Russian military intelligence service (GRU) operation with nerve agent Novichok was responsible for the poisoning death of Sturgess was last reported on October 14.   This revealed that the county coroner in charge of the inquest into the cause of Sturgess’s death was lying to the press in an attempt to postpone the inquest indefinitely.

That in turn was necessary because Ridley, Senior Coroner for Wiltshire and Swindon, appears to have concluded, but cannot acknowledge in court,  that police evidence, if revealed on oath,  would fall short of confirming that Novichok was the cause of death. The domino effect of this was also exposed: insufficient evidence and no ruling in the Sturgess case means insufficient evidence in the case of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, allegedly attacked by the same Russian assassins with the same Novichok, on March 4, 2018.  

The allegation that the Skripal and Sturgess cases were directly connected to the same perpetrators and the same Russian plot, was made by then-Prime Minister Theresa May (right) on September 5, 2018. May told the House of Commons “hard evidence has enabled the independent Crown Prosecution Service to conclude they have a sufficient basis on which to bring charges against these two men for the attack in Salisbury. The same two men are now also the prime suspects in the case of Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley too. There is no other line of inquiry beyond this. And the police have today formally linked the attack on the Skripals and the events in Amesbury – such that it now forms one investigation.”

The first court in which May’s “hard evidence” ought to have been presented was Ridley’s court in Salisbury. He has prevented that by cutting short the first preliminary inquest review (PIR) hearing on July 18, 2018, and then postponing three following ones in January, April and October of this year.   

The mainstream British media, based in London, and the Wiltshire county and  Salisbury city media have refused to report Coroner Ridley’s conduct. This was reported by British alt-media in a publication by Rob Slane on October 17. Read that here, as well as the updates and comments.    The next day, October 18, the scheduled date of Ridley’s last PIR, Craig Murray reported the news. 

Postponement of inquests by coroners is standard practice when police and prosecutor  investigations are continuing. The statute regulating this is the Coroners and Justice Act of 2009. The law’s Section 6  makes an inquest mandatory; Ridley isn’t legally allowed not to hold an inquest.

The law requires that the outcome of the inquest must be a ruling on “how, when and where the deceased came by his or her death”. The “when” and “where”  in the Sturgess case were plain immediately after she and her partner, Charles Rowley,  fell ill at the latter’s home on June 30, and were then hospitalized; Sturgess died in hospital on July 8.  The “how” – the cause of her death — has been under investigation ever since. If criminal liability in the cause of death has been discovered, the coroner must say so in his inquest ruling, according to Section 10.

BRITISH LAW OFFICIALS IN CHARGE OF THE DAWN STURGESS INQUEST


Left to right: David Ridley, Max Hill; Mark Lucraft; Robert Buckland. Since 2009 Ridley has been Senior Coroner for Wiltshire and Swindon. Ridley’s investigation of the Sturgess case is informed by Hill, and his conduct is supervised by Lucraft and Buckland. Hill is Director of Public Prosecutions and Head of the Crown Prosecution Service since November 1, 2018; he is responsible for telling Ridley if there is evidence of a criminal offence in the Sturgess death. Lucraft is the Chief Coroner; one of his official duties is to “keep a register of coroner investigations lasting more than 12 months and take steps to reduce unnecessary delays”. Buckland is the Conservative Party member of parliament for South Swindon, a constituency which is part of the coronial area covered by Ridley. When the Skripal-Sturgess cases began, Buckland was Solicitor-General. He then moved to head the UK Prisons Service, and since July of this year, when Boris Johnson became prime minister, Buckland became Lord Chancellor and head of the Justice Ministry. Buckland supervises both Ridley as coroner and the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office.The Justice Ministry press office says there is currently no JCIO head, and an announcement of the new appointment will be made soon.

Postponement of inquests is allowed by the law, but only if it is requested by the Crown (state) prosecutors; only upon the formal submission to the coroner that a crime has been committed and that a person may be charged; and only for a specified period of delay.  The details can be read in Schedule 1 of the statute. The Coroners Act doesn’t allow Ridley to make an indefinite postponement of the Sturgess inquest. Ridley was asked to clarify these points last month. He refused.

Instead, Ridley arranged for a spokesman to claim that a press notice for postponement had been issued through the Metropolitan Police. This was a lie; it is still a lie. There is no such police press release.

Lying in public by a coroner is illegal; so is covering up a lie. Such misconduct can be complained of to the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office (JCIO), so long as the complaint shows that Ridley fabricated what he was doing, and not doing; the JCIO rules explicitly cover misconduct by a coroner.   Exactly what is misconduct is less than clear. According to the JCIO rules, “misconduct relates to the judge’s personal behaviour for example: a judge shouting or speaking in a sarcastic manner in court; or misuse of judicial status outside of court. It does not relate to decisions or judgments made by a judge in the course of court proceedings.”    A JCIO website publication explains: “Our statutory remit is to deal with complaints of misconduct. This means how a judge has behaved personally, e.g. making a racist remark, inappropriate use of social media, or falling asleep in court.”

The JCIO was established in 2006; it isn’t exactly an independent investigative body because its investigators include serving judges. Nor does it have the power to decide whether a judge or coroner has committed misconduct. Its role, the annual report for 2016-17 disclosed, is that of “an advisory body. It provides advice to the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice on disciplinary issues, but has no power to make a finding that a judicial office holder has committed misconduct or to impose a disciplinary sanction.” In the JCIO’s latest annual report for 2018-19, released this week, the number of complaints against coroners is not reported. At present, the JCIO is without a head.

The published guidance   requires Ridley not to comment to the press on the merits of the Sturgess case, but lying to the press about case management and unreasonable delay in holding an inquest are different. Last month the JCIO started an investigation of a complaint against Ridley.

On November 5, Ridley authorized a spokesman to announce that a hearing in the Sturgess case has been fixed for February 18; that’s five months after the postponed hearing of October 18; it’s less than a month after press reporting led to the JCIO investigation.

Ridley was also asked:  Is it Mr Ridley’s view that the police are not ready to testify at this time on the cause of death?  What explanation does Mr Ridley give of the false references he issued to the press to a Metropolitan Police release which did not, and does not exist?

Ridley did not reply to the questions. Instead, he said through a spokesman that the Wiltshire Council Press Office“will be able to advise you and is dealing with all Press enquiries”. Ceri Tocock (right) is head of the Council’s press office. She now claims that Ridley issued a press release through the Metropolitan Police, announcing that he was postponing the hearing from October 18 to a date in December or January. Tocock said she was unable to provide a list of media reporters sent the release. She was also unable to explain why there was no media reporting. Tocock says Ridley’s decision to move his press contact from Scotland Yard in London to the county council in Salisbury was taken “recently.”  It is unusual for English courts to communicate publicly through local government bodies.

Tocock acknowledged that she did not know that Ridley had set February 18 for the new hearing. “A press release will be issued shortly with an update on the pre-inquest review,” she said.

Ridley’s new admission reveals it is issues of law which are now delaying the inquest, not evidence of the cause of Sturgess’s death. According to Ridley’s statement provided by Tocock today, “the Senior Coroner having received submissions on the subject of the scope of the Inquest is of the view that the submissions raise complex legal argument in respect of which the Senior Coroner needs to give appropriate and careful consideration to before handing down a written ruling.” Tocock was unable to say when Ridley’s legal ruling will be released.

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