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THE HOUDINI TRICK AND THE SKRIPAL CASE — CORONER RIDLEY’S ESCAPE FROM THE EVIDENCE OF THE ONE WITNESS WHO KNOWS THE TRUTH, SERGEI SKRIPAL

by John Helmer, Moscow
  @bears_with [1]

In a ruling issued by the Wiltshire county coroner David Ridley (lead image) this week, the  British Government allegations of a Russian assassination plot against Sergei Skripal by the nerve agent Novichok were repeated and accepted — without the qualification that they have not yet been tested and proven in the coroner’s court.

Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were attacked in the centre of Salisbury on March 4, 2018. Without mentioning them as material witnesses in his investigation, Ridley has decided that the death of Dawn Sturgess in Amesbury, near Salisbury, four months later, was an “unpredictable misfortune”. “On the face of the evidence I have seen,” Ridley said of Sturgess’s death in Salisbury District Hospital on July 8, 2018, “[she] appears to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time and her death may well have arisen as a result of ‘collateral damage’, a phrase that I apologise in using but I am unable to express it any other meaningful way.”

By “collateral damage” Ridley meant he doesn’t doubt Sturgess was killed by the same weapon, Novichok, as was used in the attack on the Skripals. Ridley also reports his conclusion that without the police discoveries of perfume bottle evidence in the Sturgess case, there would be no evidence at all of how the Skripals were attacked.

Ridley’s ruling was directed at the London lawyers for the Sturgess family, barrister Michael Mansfield QC and solicitor Irene Nembhard. They have proposed putting Russia’s military intelligence agents and also the British security services on trial in a scheme for a large payout in compensation to the Sturgess family. The lawyers claim the Russian assassination threat was so well-known to the British services, they were negligent in their duty to prevent it and to protect the people of Salisbury, particularly Sturgess.  

Mansfield and Nembhard have been trying to keep this plan secret. They and their office clerks  have repeatedly refused to disclose the documents which Ridley released in part this week. Ridley has also revealed that the two-year delay in holding the inquest into the cause of Sturgess’s death will continue because he “expect[s] this ruling is challenged by way of Judicial Review.”

The Ridley ruling was completed on December 20; it runs to 31 pages, and can be read in full here [2].

British officials have claimed the Salisbury poisoning of the Skripals and the Amesbury poisoning, which also involved Sturgess’s companion Charles Rowley, are one and the same case of attempted murder and chemical warfare by  two officers of Russian military intelligence, GRU.

In a statement to the House of Commons on September 5, 2018,  then-Prime Minister May claimed [3]:   “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.” For the case archive, read this [4].

Ridley’s ruling repeats the allegations in order to accept them. “Mr Mansfield QC and para 11 of his submission helpfully [emphasis added] repeats part of the then Prime Minister’s statement to the House of Commons about the ‘Salisbury Incident’ that occurred in 2018 which sadly, as a consequence of exposure to the nerve agent Novichok, resulted in the death of Dawn Sturgess and caused serious harm to 4 other individuals including Mr Rowley. In the address the Prime Minister indicated that the Government had concluded that the 2 Russian individuals under suspicion for the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal in March 2018, which also resulted also in the poisoning and hospitalisation of Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, are Russian Military Intelligence Officers from the GRU and that the March 2018 attack was: ‘almost certainly approved outside the GRU at a senior level of the Russian State.’”

At the same time as Prime Minister May was speaking to parliament on September 5, 2018, the  Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announced it had drawn up an European Arrest Warrant charging two Russians,  Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, with attempted murder, chemical warfare and other crimes. The CPS rules require that the warrant cannot be issued until the completion of the investigation.

Ridley now reports he was told by the CPS to delay his inquest for fifteen more months,  through 2019, because the CPS was still investigating. “Following receipt of a letter from the Crown Prosecution Service (“CPS”) on 15 October 2019 [2018] I suspended the investigation…on the basis that the CPS had requested the suspension as there was an ongoing criminal investigation…. A fresh PIR date was then listed for 1400 on 15 April 2019. A further request seeking a further period of suspension on the same grounds was made by letter from the CPS on the 15 March 2019. I agreed to the request and re-listed the PIR for 1000 on 18 October 2019.” That, too,  was postponed until next month.

Ridley has now identified the two police officers providing him with his evidence in the case. One, Detective Superintendent Nigel Doak, of the Thames Valley police, was awarded [5]a medal for his work on the case in this month’s New Year Honours. Doak, says Ridley, provided a “policy document relating to the March incident and it is clear that the safety of the public and police and together with other personnel was of paramount importance in his decision making.”

The second police officer identified by Ridley, Detective Chief Inspector Phillip Murphy, is “the senior investigating officer that I have been primarily relying on to assist in the gathering of evidence in relation to Ms Sturgess’ death.” Murphy is described as the “Senior Investigation Officer…from the Counter Terrorism Policing – South East.” Murphy’s name is missing from the medal awards,  though a superior officer, Paul Mills, Deputy Chief Constable of Wiltshire, has received a medal (right).
Mills played a public relations role in the Skripal case, repeating [6] the Novichok allegations and assuring Salisbury residents they were safe from it.   Mills claimed that the Defence Ministry’s chemical weapons laboratory at Porton Down was the source of his public announcements [7].  

Ridley’s claims about Novichok do not identify Porton Down as the source of his evidence on Novichok. The terms blood and blood test don’t appear in Ridley’s ruling on his evidence. For more on the blood testing of the Skripals, Sturgess and Rowley, read this [8].

According to Ridley, “the incident in Salisbury and the use of a prohibited chemical weapon nerve agent, Novichok, was unprecedented anywhere in the world and it was clear from the Police investigation that Counter Terrorism Policing had no evidence in the early days as to the exact method by which Mr Skripal and his daughter Yulia had been exposed to the nerve agent. Even when the evidence pointed to the contamination occurring at his home address in Christie Miller Road in Salisbury there was no evidence pointing as to what the device used to disperse the nerve agent looked like or that it had been discarded in the locality.”

Only after Sturgess had died, and several days later, after the police discovered a perfume bottle on the kitchen table at the Rowley home, Ridley now claims it was possible for the police to identify “the device used to disperse the nerve agent.”

“Evidence will be presented at the final hearing by DCI Murphy,” Ridley says, “ that the confirmation that the perfume bottle found at Mr Rowley’s property contained Novichok was the first time that they had evidence that something from the March 2018 attack had been left behind.”

Ridley is now certain. He cites “a series of press release logs” to “confirm that [Detective Sergeant Bailey] was exposed to the agent when he touched the door handle of Mr Skripal’s home”. Next,  according to Ridley, “a review of the evidence in my possession gives rise to the following timeline:…11 July 2018 – A perfume bottle is safely removed from Mr Rowley’s property in Amesbury. Approximately 2 days later the box and internal wrappings are confirmed to be contaminated with the nerve agent Novichok and the liquid inside the perfume bottle is confirmed as the prohibited nerve agent Novichok.”

In the ruling Ridley mentions the Skripals in passing as the intended targets of the Novichok attack. He doesn’t mention they were at home when he says he is sure the Russian assassins were at their house, at the door handle. Ridley accepts video evidence of their “movements after they were spotted by a CCTV camera on the Wilton Road in Salisbury, a location which is in close proximity to Mr Skripal’s home.” Ridley will not, however, call Sergei and Yulia Skripal as witnesses to testify.

“As a coroner conducting an inquisitorial process… I have a broad discretion in relation to the scope of the inquest including what witnesses to call and the evidence to be adduced at the final hearing. It is a process in respect of which I am entirely responsible for.” The Sturgess family lawyers are not requesting the Skripals testify.

The “onus [is] on the court in any inquest”, Ridley has ruled, “to ensure the facts are fully, fairly and fearlessly investigated.” He says he will “look at to what extent they [the alleged Russian assassins] were individually involved in bringing Novichok to Salisbury and what happened to the Novichok once it had been used in the attack relative to the appearance of Novichok again at the end of June 2018 in the town of Amesbury…This part of the investigation is essential as, in discharging my judicial role and hearing the evidence, I may have to consider whether the evidence supports the finding of a conclusion of ‘Unlawful Killing’ in respect of Ms Sturgess’ death.”

Mansfield and Nembhard, for the Sturgess family, have argued in their application to the coroner that this isn’t going far enough. They say that under British law and Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights [9],  the British government “bore some responsibility for the death.”

Mansfield and his clerk, Lee Wakeling, refuse to provide a copy of the paper they submitted to Ridley. “Mr Mansfield would not be able to comment on any ongoing matters. Please contact our Instructing Solicitors in the first instance.” They then refused to identify the name of the solicitor. Irene Nembhard was confirmed by her clerk, who gave the first name Joe, and who claimed Nembhard’s “team” would provide the papers. They didn’t.

Left to right: Dawn Sturgess; Michael Mansfield; Irene Nembhard.

The lawyers told Ridley “it is arguable that the UK authorities failed to take reasonable steps to protect members of the public, including Ms Sturgess, from Novichok after it was discovered in early 2018.” They say there is an “enhanced duty” on the coroner to investigate the “additional issues”, including “Who was responsible for Ms Sturgess’ death.  Whether members of the Russian state were responsible for the death.  The source of the Novichok that killed Ms Sturgess.  Whether appropriate medical care was given to Ms Sturgess…[and] how the Novichok came to be in Salisbury needs also to be answered.”

According to Ridley, the testimony of the two alleged GRU killers, Petrov and Boshirov (Alexander Mishkin, Anatoly Chepiga), would be material to the inquest; the evidence of the Skripals would not. “As a result of reviewing the evidence, I have made both Mr Petrov and Mr Boshirov Interested Persons on the basis that they may by an act or omission have caused or contributed to Ms Sturgess’ death. The investigation will include examining their movements in the United Kingdom following their arrival on 2 March 2018 until their departure on 4 March 2018…It will look at to what extent they were individually involved in bringing Novichok to Salisbury and what happened to the Novichok once it had been used in the attack…”

But Ridley has refused to consider identifying them in the inquest, or to link them, or Novichok,  to the GRU or the Russian state, as Mansfield is demanding. “The determination of such a link would in my view be a direct violation of section 10(2)(b) Coroners and Justice Act 2009 [10] which prohibits me determining matters of civil liability generally and would therefore be unlawful. Whilst states do not generally attract criminal liability (unless legislation says otherwise) they are recognised in law as a separate legal personality in the sense that a state can sue and be sued. Mr Rowley has indicated only recently in the press that he intends to sue Russia for £1 million pounds. That would be a civil claim. The family may also possibly be able to sue for example under the Fatal Accidents Act 1976, an alternative civil claim… to determine the source of the Novichok would I fear involve determining a country of origin which is likely to give rise to a determination of civil liability which in itself would be unlawful.”

Source: https://www.salisburyjournal.co.uk/ [11]