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By John Helmer, Moscow 

The British Government is preparing to halt the coroner’s court inquest into allegations that Novichok caused the death of Dawn Sturgess in Salisbury on July 8, 2018.

After replacing the Salisbury coroner in January of this year, and after a single hearing on March 30 by secret service advisor and ex-judge Baroness Heather Hallett, briefings by the Cabinet Office and the security services have led to the decision that the only way of preserving the government’s narrative of a Russian nerve agent attack, first against Sergei and Yulia Skripal, then against Sturgess, is to introduce Defence Ministry and MI6 evidence in secret session.

Hallett and the lawyers advising her inadvertently allowed secret medical evidence to slip into the public record on March 30. This revealed that two leading English pathologists could not agree to sign their findings on the cause of Sturgess’s death after holding two autopsies in July of 2018; they then delayed signing their final post-mortem report for almost five months. That report, dated November 29, 2018, the medical records of the first and second autopsies, along with ambulance paramedic logs, hospital admission records, and ward medical notes remain top secret. Together with the papers of MI6 agents, Porton Down nerve agent experts, and Sir Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Office official in charge, this classified evidence is inadmissible in coroner’s court proceedings under English law; they are allowable in closed-door session if a public inquiry is substituted.

The switch from open coroner’s inquest to secret public inquiry, which Hallett and her predecessor Wiltshire county coroner David Ridley have forewarned, is planned to be announced later this month, or in July.

For the time being Hallett’s office declines to say when she will resume hearing the case.

In written directions issued after the March 30 court session, Hallett ordered secret intelligence reports to be submitted to her office by April 20.  She also announced a vague timetable to follow, with the next hearings to “be listed in June or July 2021 and in September 2021.”

Asked this week to clarify when Hallett plans to resume this month, Hallett’s spokesman Bernadette Caffarey said: “the Sturgess Inquest will be launching a website in the coming days and all the information on upcoming dates for further Pre Inquest Reviews will be posted on there.”

Coroner’s courts do not usually operate websites for their proceedings. However, in exceptional,  publicly sensitive cases, Hallett has used the website format in the past.  

So far the conflict of medical evidence on the cause of Sturgess’s death has not been acknowledged by Hallett; the two pathologists whose summary findings were reported at the March 30 hearing, Philip Lumb (right) and Guy Rutty, refuse to answer press questions; for the full story, click to read.   Evidence obtained last week from sources at the undertaker’s and crematorium involved in Sturgess’s funeral and interment raise additional doubt that the evidence for the government’s Novichok narrative is the truth.

New research into statements reported by the press from Sturgess’s sister, mother, son, and other family members, speaking at the time of her hospitalisation, reveals that if they are called to testify in Hallett’s court, their evidence may contradict the government’s Novichok allegations.  This follows from another slip in the medical secrecy which appeared in the March 30 inquest  record. According to a paper read out by Andrew O’Connor QC, the barrister assisting Hallett, “on 5th July 2018 a diagnosis of Novichok poisoning was recorded in the medical notes [of Dawn Sturgess]”.

This means that between June 30 and July 5, there is evidence from the Sturgess family and the medical personnel who briefed them that Dawn was not suffering from nerve agent symptoms. Ewan Hope, Dawn’s son, told a London newspaper that he had been “alerted to his mum’s illness in a call from his gran [Caroline Sturgess] last Saturday [June 30]. Charlie [Rowley] called her when Dawn fell ill hours before he did, Ewan said: ‘The paramedics gave mum CPR for 30 minutes as her heart wasn’t beating. Because there was no oxygen going to her brain for 30 minutes, doctors are afraid she could be brain damaged.’”

This is evidence that the ambulance crew, which first responded to Dawn on the morning of June 30,  have recorded in their logs that she had no heart beat or pulse, and was not breathing. On admission to the Emergency Department at Salisbury Hospital, pulse and respiration records would also have been made. These are likely to have been reviewed in the first post-mortem conducted by Lumb, soon after Dawn’s death was recorded on July 8. Lumb concluded the cause of her death was “post cardiac arrest hypoxic brain injury and intracerebral haemorrhage”.  

A leading British expert on organophosphate poisoning and other toxicologists have commented that paralysis of the lungs leading to asphyxiation is the usual trigger for death by nerve agents; and that the hospital triage when Dawn was admitted would have detected lung fluid accumulation, if Novichok had been present.

Left to right: Dawn Sturgess’s father Stan; mother Caroline; son Ewan Hope. Claire Sturgess, Dawn’s sister, has provided press interviews but no photograph.

Caroline Sturgess, Dawn’s mother who visited her at Salisbury Hospital and reportedly kept “a three-day bedside vigil” between July 1 and 5, believed Dawn had suffered a heart attack and  loss of oxygen to the brain because that is what the hospital staff told her at the time.  Caroline also revealed that until the medical record was changed on July 5, she and other family visitors were not required to wear protective gear.

The London Daily Mail reported being told by Caroline that “her daughter is being deprived of the quality of care given to Sergei and Yulia Skripal because she is a ‘nobody alcoholic’. She also slammed the police for ‘keeping the family in the dark’ by saying that Dawn had suffered a heart attack for several days before the truth came out. The family member, who asked not to be named [sister Claire Sturgess], spoke in detail how Dawn’s mother, Caroline Sturgess, has visited her daughter several times and is distressed at the level of care she has been given. ‘Caroline is in really bad shock. She can’t believe it,’ the family member said. ‘She has taken three weeks off work and she visited Dawn again on Friday’ [July 6].”

The day before, on July 5, the patient medical notes were changed, according to Hallett’s March 30 record — Novichok had been introduced. Until then the information provided to the family by hospital staff and by the police had been accurate: no nerve agent symptom had been detected at the hospital, nor evidence of Novichok gathered by the police after their search of the Amesbury flat. For details of the police search, and for the late discovery of the poison bottle on July 11, read the book.  

On July 2 and 3, 2018, the Wiltshire police issued warnings by twitter and official website confirming that their search of the Sturgess-Rowley flat in Amesbury, together with interviews of others who were in the flat at a party the evening before Dawn’s collapse, confirmed that Sturgess and Rowley had “fallen ill after using a contaminated batch of drugs”. However, all the police tweets were erased after they were reported here. The wayback machine has made possible the recovery of this police website notice.

Instead of the earlier “bedside vigil”, the newspaper reported Dawn’s sister Claire as changing her story:  “ ‘all the visitors have to look at them through glass…. Dawn is not breathing for herself and she’s on a respirator. The doctors said that it’s not looking good and that she might not survive. She’s on the brink of death, basically. She’s done a lot of abuse to her body already.’ But despite the round-the-clock care that the two victims are receiving in the Radnor Ward intensive care unit in Salisbury hospital, Caroline believes that staff are treating them like ‘second-class citizens’ because of their addictions. ‘She feels that Dawn is not getting the same quality of treatment as the Skripals because of her background and the fact she’s an alcoholic. She’s seen as a nobody, really,’ the family member said. She [Claire] added: ‘[Caroline] is annoyed because for days the police told her that Dawn had a heart attack. They didn’t tell her the truth. She feels like she hasn’t been given the whole story.’”

On July 19, the London Sun and Daily Mail reported from a prepared statement by sister Claire, read out at the first coroner’s hearing that day.  “On 1st July 2018 I was informed that my sister Dawn Kelly Sturgess had been taken ill and was in hospital.” There is no reference in this court statement to what Claire and the family had observed in the days immediately following July 1. The sister’s statement then jumped a week to July 8. “’At about 5.30pm to 6pm [on July 8] I was informed that the decision had been made that the medical staff wanted to turn off her oxygen. I then said my goodbyes to Dawn.’”  

Until now, the press record which the family members made at the time was not viewed by the coroner or the government as threatening to contradict the official Novichok narrative. However, Hallett has exposed the interval between June 30 and July 5, 2018, when this contradictory evidence was accumulating. Hallett’s disclosure that Lumb’s cause of death report was added to, months later, by the notation from Rutty, the second pathologist, of  “Novichok toxicity” exposes the same process occurring post-mortem, as had happened at the hospital before death.

In Hallett’s court the family members and Rowley are represented by London lawyers Michael Mansfield QC and Irene Nembhard.  The lawyers refuse to answer questions; the family members are forbidden to speak to the press without their lawyers’ clearance. They also sold their story to the BBC for a three-part dramatisation broadcast last year; click for details. They are seeking a multi-million pound compensation from the British government. Were the evidence to materialise in court that Novichok was not the cause of Dawn’s death, their money claim would fail.

Managing the secrets of the Sturgess family, ambulance and hospital staff, post-mortem pathologists, police, and undertakers is proving to be more complicated for Hallett than she has anticipated in managing the security and intelligence services. At the March 30 hearing, she ordered the latter deliver summaries of their secrets by April 20. These were described in court by the lawyer for the Home Secretary  as “some high-level assessments that were written in 2018” on the cases of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, allegedly attacked by Russian agents with Novichok in Salisbury on March 4, 2018; and the cases of Sturgess and Rowley, allegedly struck by a vial of Novichok left behind by the Russian agents, picked up inadvertently by Rowley,  and opened at his apartment in Amesbury on June 30.

These secret reports, Hallett was told, are “assessments [which] draw together the complex intelligence jigsaw puzzle that was put together during the very large-scale investigation that took place into the Salisbury and Amesbury poisonings. Those assessments form the basis of the Prime Minister’s assessment to the House in September 2018. Providing this material would allow you and your team to consider the extent to which you are satisfied that the public statements made in 2018 do provide an accurate representation of the underlying intelligence and assessment.”

 “I have no doubt whatsoever,” Hallett declared in court, “that the provisional scope [of the inquest] should include the source of the Novichok and Russian state responsibility.”  Making that stick now requires replacing the coroner’s court testing witnesses and documents in public with a public inquiry accepting secret evidence behind closed doors, where it cannot be tested.

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