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By John Helmer, Moscow

The British Government (lead image, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak) has decided that in public hearings to confirm that Russian-made, Russian-delivered Novichok killed Dawn Sturgess in mid-2018 – after failing to kill Sergei and Yulia Skripal weeks earlier – nothing can be said or revealed without being subject to an immediate veto by the police, the MI6 spy agency, and other UK officials.

The veto will cover police records; closed-circuit television (CCTV) films; laboratory reports by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down; Salisbury District Hospital patient admission and clinical test results; witness testimony; coroner’s cremation forms – in fact, everything which may expose, not what really happened to the Skripals and to Sturgess, but what didn’t happen to them which the British Government insists it did.

That evidence is what is called “sensitive information” in the state inquiry into the cause of Sturgess’s death which held a new courtroom session in London on Friday.   

Lord Anthony Hughes, the retired judge appointed to run the proceeding, acknowledged this month that “there is a risk that sensitive information might be disclosed, inadvertently or otherwise, during the course of the open preliminary hearings.” Accordingly, he has announced, that “there will be two video links to afford those not present in the hearing room with access to the hearing – a ‘live link’ and a ‘delayed link’, which will be delayed by 5 minutes.  The public and media attending the hearing remotely will do so by means of the delayed link.”  

In the 5-minute delay, Hughes has decided, “in the event that sensitive information is disclosed in the course of an open hearing whilst these measures are in place or a Core Participant informs the Chair that he considers that sensitive information may have been disclosed, the Chair will consider taking the following steps (if necessary by receiving submissions in closed session): a. an immediate termination of the delayed link; b. making a restriction order to prohibit the publication of the sensitive information; c. ensuring that when the delayed link feed is resumed, the sensitive information (including any submissions concerning any information which a Core Participant considers may be sensitive information) is not broadcast.”

The inquiry has already decided that the “core participants” include the Sturgess family, several branches of the British police, the Home Office representing the intelligence agencies and Porton Down, the Wiltshire Council, and the regional ambulance service which responded to emergency calls for the Skripals on March 4, 2018, and for Sturgess on June 30.   

Sergei and Yulia Skripal have been designated core participants, but their lawyer, Adam Chapman, has refused to confirm that the Skripals have appointed him to represent them or that they are still alive.  Without explanation Chapman was absent from the latest court hearing last Friday.

Hughes opened the new hearing in London on March 24. A re-enactment of a secret, closed-door hearing a few days earlier,  the session for public and press consumption lasted for three hours.  Click to read the transcript.  

The police told the judge they have compiled a total of 66,000 items of evidence; of that total, they say 48,438 items have been delivered by the police to the judge’s staff for their review. Duplicates of the same evidence may add up to 16,000 items; that’s one piece of evidence in three.  

Going much more slowly, the government told the judge the “inquiry experts have identified 13 sensitivities in over 1,000 documents so far.”  

Drafting statements for witnesses who may be called to testify to the inquiry, either in open session or in secret, is also under way in parallel. It is not yet known whether Sergei and Yulia Skripal will be permitted to testify in public.

 “Once we know in its entirety what material is to be disclosed,” announced Cathryn McGahey QC, the lawyer for the Home Office, Defence Ministry, Porton Down and the intelligence services, “then our experts in their particular fields can look at all the material in each particular area and say, ‘It’s safe to do X’ or, ‘it’s not safe to do Y’.”

McGahey did not explain what “safe” means, and for whom.

“I mean, it’s absolutely true that as we go through this process we will try to pick up risky pieces of  information that put together might cause a problem. In my submission, sir, the risk is a very real one and it happens in real life… HMG [His Majesty’s Government] does understand, sir, that we are asking you to allow us a lot of time to do something with a lot of care, but that is because of the importance of what we are doing. [HUGHES]  All right — sorry, go on. MS MCGAHEY: Careful management of disclosure is absolutely key. [HUGHES] Central to the whole business of this exercise. S MCGAHEY: Yes, and it would be disastrous if an inquiry  intended to learn lessons actually led to us making a mistake that made us less safe than we are now.”

Exactly what is meant by “sensitive” government officials had told the judge inwriting earlier this month.   For them McGahey told Hughes on Friday, sensitivity means almost anything or everything connected to Russia. “The sensitivities around this inquiry,” said McGahey, “are greater than those in the vast majority of inquests and inquiries. Investigations into deaths caused by terrorist atrocities often involve a lot of sensitive material that has to be protected, but the terrorists who threaten the safety of the UK and who  might exploit sensitive information if it’s disclosed by  mistake have absolutely nothing like the sophistication of a hostile state that is Russia.”

The government spokesman was implying that Russia was to blame for Novichok and that Novichkok had caused Sturgess’s death – the conclusion, in short, which the inquiry has been set up to investigate. Any evidence that casts doubt on this outcome,  McGahey was hinting, would be so “sensitive”, “risky”, and “unsafe” for the British Government, it wants the power now to stop release and disclosure.

“Or any other hostile state,” Hughes interrupted McGahey, implying that she and the government might be jumping to its conclusion prematurely, and that this judgement was up to Hughes to make. “Indeed,” McGahey replied; returning immediately o Russia as the target of the court proceeding. “So we have to assume that anything that we put onto any open system is no longer secure….So the reason for not publishing anything until either HMG or this inquiry can be sure it carries no more than a manageable risk has nothing to do with any wish to withhold anything from the [Sturgess] family and nothing to do with any wish on the part of anyone to cause delay.”

“But one thing that it’s crucial for me to explain to the family is that HMG has to check everything before it is sent out. So, for example, anything that might give a hint as to where the Skripals are now or that might help Russia to work out how and when the perpetrators of the attack were identified must not be public.”

This is the latest government statement to imply that both Skripals are still alive, although there has been no independent evidence of this. Sergei has not been heard on the telephone by his family members since June 26, 2019.   Yulia was last seen in a British and US-directed interview at a US bomber base in May 2018;    her last telephone call was heard by a family member in Russia on November 20, 2020.    

Left to right: Lord Anthony Hughes; Catheryn McGahey KC; the book on the Skripal case – click to read.  

In an edited record of the last closed-door session of Hughes’s proceeding, it was revealed that the police evidence report, as well as testimony by ambulance, hospital, and other witnesses are likely to be kept secret when the inquiry becomes a public hearing.   The start of that is unlikely to be before mid-2024, officials said last week.

When BBC, the state propaganda platform, reported the secrecy and the delays, it claimed in the government’s defence that there have been “sensitivities” in more than a thousand pieces of documentary evidence compiled by the police so far. The BBC omitted to report that the electronic veto has been introduced.

The BBC also repeated the certainty that Novichok was intended by the Russians for “the original targets of what police believe was a Russian hit squad in Salisbury.” 

Source: https://www.bbc.com/

A leading London reporter reacted at the fresh attempts to conceal evidence. “For an inquiry that wasn’t going to happen, into the supposedly straightforward death of someone in hospital supposedly from poisoned perfume, there is an enormous amount of secrecy/closed hearings attending this. You have to ask how much of this inquiry/inquest is actually going to be heard in the open. Now that we’re into ‘categories of sensitivity’ any normal person listening to this inquiry would be  in despair.”

The judge made an oblique reference to the war in the Ukraine, claiming the British experts on Russia  who are needed for the Novichok side of the Sturgess case have their work cut out for them fighting the Russians. “[HUGHES] What is clearly right is that there is a limited number of specialists in the particular field of the asserted hostile state. [MANSFIELD] Yes. [HUGHES] And in that field, just at the moment, there are a large number of rather pressing calls on their time.”

Mansfield also revealed publicly for the first time that he and the Sturgess family want the release of closed-circuit television (CCTV) tapes of the Skripal home, the centre of Salisbury on the day of the Skripal incident, and other locations. These tapes, including private premises security recordings, were all confiscated by the police immediately after the Skripal incident; they have been withheld since then.

Source: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/

Mansfield is aiming at evidence that British security agents were following the Skripals and also the alleged Russian assassins; or proof that if they were not, they ought to have been. From this evidence Mansfield is making his case for a multi-million pound payout for the Sturgess family in compensation for what he alleges has been the government’s negligence.

According to Mansfield last Friday, “this involves — again I am not stating a state secret here, there is an allegation in a film that’s been made about all of this that when they [alleged Russian assassins] arrived at Gatwick [Airport] they were followed and Skripal himself was followed. Now whether that’s true I don’t know. CCTV would be relevant to all of that.”

Mansfield also asked for open disclosure of the scientific evidence on the organophosphorus compound called the Novichok nerve agent,  which the British Government has told parliament was used against the Skripals and then against Sturgess, killing her. “MR MANSFIELD: It’s that kind of material. Then again I am looking at the list that we have out of the scope [of inquiry] issues, the Novichok itself is of interest or may be of interest. Well, it’s the central agent here. The question is the link between the Novichok and where it was found in Salisbury in terms of where it was distributed, not the bottle, but where was it found on a door handle, on a car handle and so on, these are all matters of the distribution and it ties into is it — how does it compare with the bottle and the Novichok?”

The lawyer for the Sturgess family is saying that almost five years after Sturgess’s death, the family has been told what happened but they have been shown no evidence and allowed to ask no forensic questions. They have been told to trust the government.  Hughes warned them against expecting more, dismissing their lawyer’s skepticism.

“[MR MANSFIELD] There is scientific evidence as we understand it, but we have not seen it. So may I just put it – [HUGHES] The identity of the material? MR MANSFIELD: Yes, scientific evidence, which we can’t imagine is subject to any kind of restriction order.”

“[HUGHES]  I wouldn’t be too sure about that, Mr Mansfield.”

“MR MANSFIELD: In view of what was said publicly by various politicians, unless they have it wrong, which is possible.”

“[HUGHES]  But the extent of the defensive knowledge, defensive corporate knowledge of potential dangerous agencies is highly sensitive potentially, isn’t it?”

Hughes’s response indicates the likelihood that the central evidence of Novichok, which has been the core of the case against Russia, will be kept secret.  Click to read Hughes’s secrecy order, dated March 14.  

Hughes will decide shortly whether to convene another open preliminary session next July or September. Thereafter, he and the lawyers assisting him believe the first formal opening session of the inquiry will not occur before October 2024.

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