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By John Helmer, Moscow 

The first session of the inquest into the death of Dawn Sturgess, held in London on Tuesday, was almost entirely predictable.

The counsel for the coroner,  like the lawyers for the Sturgess family and for the Home Office, repeated without qualification the allegation that a Novichok poison weapon they say was produced in Russia and taken to the UK by Russian assassins, caused the unplanned  death of Sturgess. This followed twelve weeks after an attempt at assassinating Sergei Skripal with the same weapon on March 4, 2018. Sturgess was the unintended victim of leftover poison, they say.

In short, this is an inquiry into evidence everyone in court already agrees can mean only one thing, beyond reasonable doubt — the Russians did it. A court proceeding to demonstrate what has already been announced; aka a show trial.

There were  two surprises, though. These appear to have been as unintended by Her Majesty’s Government as Sturgess’s Novichok death.

The first was the disclosure by the inquest counsel from the pathologists’ post-mortem report on Sturgess, after her death was recorded at Salisbury District Hospital on July 8, 2018. The cause of her death, according to these medical findings, was “Ia Post cardiac arrest hypoxic brain injury and intracerebral haemorrhage; Ib Novichok toxicity”.  This is the first time the post-mortem results and the names of the two doctors who reached them have been disclosed publicly. The Wiltshire county coroner David Ridley, who conducted the case for almost three years, kept this secret.

The disclosure means that Sturgess died first of a heart attack, loss of oxygen to brain, and bleeding in brain, possibly at the apartment of her partner in Amesbury before ambulance men arrived, or on her way to hospital. “She was pronounced dead in hospital,” the lawyer added. Only later was “Novichok toxicity” discovered. But when?

For the first time, it is revealed that the post-mortem examination was done on July 17; the post-mortem report did not follow until November 29. The gaps in time, and also in biochemical and forensic meaning between “1a, cardiac arrest” and “1b, Novichok toxicity”, are so large, it is shocking that the presiding coroner, Lady Heather Hallett, indicated no plan to call the pathologists to testify under cross-examination.

The second surprise is not less of a shock.  It appears in the list of witnesses. “Our current intention,” the counsel to the inquest announced, “is to make disclosure requests to the following individuals and organisations following the PIR [pre-inquest review]”. Eighteen names of witnesses follow whose testimony is planned. They start with Sturgess’s family and her companion, Charles Rowley, allegedly a survivor of the same poisoning which killed her. The local and London police follow on the list; then ambulance crews; hospital staff; the secret intelligence agencies; the Cabinet Office in London; and finally, at No. 18, “Bellingcat”. This is the well-known NATO-funded evidence fabricator and cyber warfare unit.

The Hallett inquest will call Bellingcat to testify. Missing from the list, excluded from testifying in court, are two names – Sergei and Yulia Skripal.

Neither the coroner nor the lawyers in court explained this omission. The reporters attending the hearing for the BBC, Guardian,  and Salisbury Journal failed to notice.

Tuesday’s hearing was conducted in open court, as well as by audio and video link. The proceeding lasted for two and a half hours, and was then adjourned to a date to be set by Hallett in June or July.  

Counsel for the inquest, working for Hallett and her principal advisor Martin Smith, is Andrew O’Connor QC.  He was involved in the Alexander Litvinenko case on the British government’s side, representing the first coroner to investigate Litvinenko’s death in 2006.   He was also on the British government’s team in the court proceedings for another alleged Russian state poisoning, the case of Alexander Perepilichnyy in 2018. “Much of his work”, O’Connor’s professional profile says, “has been in the field of national security.”

Left to right: Andrew O’Connor; Cathryn McGahey, Henrietta Hill.

Four lawyers represent the Home Office, led by Cathryn McGahey. For the time being they are also covering for the secret services, including the signals interception agency GCHQ, the Defence Ministry and the chemical warfare establishment at Porton Down.   Three teams of lawyers were in court representing the local, regional and metropolitan police. The South West Ambulance Service, the hospital agencies, and the Wiltshire Council also had lawyers in court.

Representing the Sturgess family and Rowley were Henrietta Hill QC, Michael Mansfield QC, and Adam Straw, nephew of the former minister in charge of the legal, foreign and intelligence services, Jack Straw. In the past both Hill and Straw represented Alexander Litvinenko and his family against the government.  Hill is also on the Home Office payroll as deputy counsel to the child sexual abuse inquiry directed by Smith and represented to the press by Bernadette Caffarey.  

The official case for the inquest was read out in court by O’Connor; click to open the first part  here ; the second part here. He announced “the investigation that is now to be conducted in these proceedings relating to the responsibility for Dawn Sturgess’ death should encompass not only the conduct of Mr Petrov and Mr Boshirov, but also the source of the Novichok and wider Russian State responsibility.” There is no ambiguity in the evidence, O’Connor told Hallett, nor should her task be in doubt. “It will also be necessary to consider the evidence that their names [of the alleged assassins] are aliases and that they are in fact GRU officers. And if this investigation is to be one that is comprehensive and not artificially limited, we submit that it must pursue the evidence as far as it will take the inquiry, and that it must attempt to answer the most fundamental questions. Where did the Novichok come from? Who sent those two men to Salisbury, and with what instructions? And at what level was that decision approved?”

As O’Connor and Smith on Hallett’s side, Hill and Straw on Sturgess’s side have already concluded, their target is President Vladimir Putin. The difference between the two sides, as it has already emerged in Ridley’s proceedings and in a High Court review last year, is that the government lawyers want Hallett to rule there was “Russian state responsibility” for Sturgess’s death, and that the responsibility extends up the official line to the Russian president. The Sturgess family want Hallett to rule that this was well-known to the British security and intelligence services for months and years before the Novichok landed on Sturgess’s kitchen table; and accordingly, that her death was due in part to negligence on the part of the state to protect her. For this, the family and Rowley are demanding money in compensation.

Rowley says he wants £1 million.

Hallett’s job was first to say sorry. “I should like to begin by expressing my sympathy to all the members of the family of Ms Sturgess and to her partner at the time of her death, Charlie Rowley.”

Hallett was in no doubt already what the evidence says. “Some four months before Dawn Sturgess’s death, on 4 March 2018 Sergei Skripal and Yulia Skripal, his daughter, had been poisoned by Novichok in Salisbury. Two Russian nationals using the names Alexander Petrov  and Ruslan Boshirov had travelled from Russia to the United Kingdom on 2 March 2018. They then visited Salisbury on 3 and 4 March, the day of the poisoning.”

“To my mind”, she said, “there is very considerable force in the submissions made by Mr O’Connor that to conduct an investigation of the death of Ms Dawn Sturgess without investigating how the Novichok came to be in Salisbury and then Amesbury, how or why it was brought to this country if it was and who brought it and who directed the people who brought it, then this would be an incomplete and potentially misleading investigation.”

“I am a great believer,” Hallett also claimed, “in not forming judgments or reaching conclusions without considering at least some of the evidence.” By the end of the hearing, she had already done so.  “I have no doubt whatsoever that the provisional scope should include the source of the Novichok and Russian state responsibility…Also plainly, in my view, there is a link between the Skripal poisoning and the death of Dawn Sturgess. If they were both poisoned by Novichok, a deadly nerve agent, not normally found on the streets of Wiltshire. Accordingly, that is a connection which in my view should be explored.”

Read the transcript of the court session here.

For the Home Office, McGahey told Hallett she should explore the link as far as it runs to Moscow, but not as far as to encompass all the other Russian Novichok assassination attempts British intelligence have alleged.  McGahey mentioned the case of Alexei Navalny as one of these Novichok poisonings. Then she became muddled in her presentation. “The death of Mr Navalny can form no part of any chain leading to her [Sturgess’s] death. We submit that equally irrelevant will be attacks that occurred years or months earlier.”

No one interrupted the government lawyer to say Navalny is not dead, or that he had survived the alleged Novichok attack, just as the Skripals had done, along with local policeman, Nick Bailey.  O’Connor for the inquest and the government claimed Bailey was “the first responder”; the police evidence indicates this is false. Read the book.

There are more than 50 references to the Skripals by name in the hearing transcript. Not once did Hallett explain why evidence of the link between what had happened to them running backwards in time, method, and motive to Moscow, and forwards to Sturgess’s death, will be ignored in the inquest.

Left to right: Baronness Hallett; Sir Mark Sedwill; Alexei Navalny.

Instead, the source of that evidence will be restricted to the British secret services, and their supervisor  at the Cabinet Office in London, Sir Mark Sedwill. A letter he wrote NATO in 2018 was quoted by Hill to Hallett as proof that “Russia has a proven record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations. The Owen report from the UK public inquiry into the death of Alexander Litvinenko concluded that he was deliberately poisoned with polonium-210, that there was a strong possibility that the FSB [Federal Security Service] directed the operation and that President Putin probably approved it.”

Hallett replied that she has already accepted Sedwill’s letter, but has no intention of cross-examining him in open court. “I take very much the points made by Ms Hill about the material that is already in the public domain, that suggests at the very least an interest that the Russian state had in the Skripals, in particular the letter from Sir Mark Sedwill.”

Hallett conceded that what Sedwill might say in evidence was top secret. She explained that in the coming months enough evidence may be presented by the government’s lawyers to show that because Hallett has expanded the scope of her inquiry to “Russian state responsibility”, British intelligence secrets will be required for presentation behind closed doors.  Because the British law on coroner’s court inquests does not allow such secrecy, Hallett announced she may decide to “convert” the court proceeding into a public inquiry.

“It may be,” O’Connor told Hallett, “that you would request conversion to an inquiry after having seen some of the sensitive material.” She agreed, she said. “I can assure everybody that if and when I reach the conclusion that I must return to this issue that, for the reasons you have given, an inquiry is inevitable, rather than reach the position that  Sir Robert Owen reached [in the Litvinernko case], waiting years for the matter to be resolved, I will direct a hearing be heard within a matter of days of my reaching that conclusion. But as it seems to me there is some force in saying that I should at least see some of the material before I even hear submissions.”

This is a signal the British government wanted to hear. Hallett has agreed to review the state secrets by herself, and decide — without a court hearing to test if the evidence is true or false — that the case must be “converted” into a public inquiry. This will also remove the issue of negligence and compensation, either postponing or neutralising it.

“An inquest is not a method of apportioning guilt or blame,” O’Connor told Hallett. “There are no parties, no indictment, no prosecution, no defence and it is not a civil or criminal trial.”

For her next step Hallett announced that she will investigate “Russian state responsibility”,  but do so behind her own closed doors. Then she will rule on whether to replace the inquest with an inquiry. That, following the Owen inquiry into Litvinenko’s death, will not be inhibited or prevented by law or the rules of evidence to “apportion guilt or blame.” Hallett left no doubt where that will end up.

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