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By Liane Theuerkauf, Munich, with introduction & illustrations by John Helmer, Moscow

On September 22, 2021, Dame Heather Hallett, the coroner appointed by the British government to conduct an inquest into the death of Dawn Sturgess, held a second hearing in court in London.  Sturgess died in Salisbury District Hospital on July 8, 2018, from what Hallett has already announced to be Novichok poisoning from a Russian military attack.

The full transcript of what Hallett said can be read here.  Analysis of the proceedings recommended skepticism towards the veracity and intentions of Hallett and the lawyers testifying in court. Read for more detail.   

Hallett has proposed putting an end to the proceeding under the Coroners and Justice Act of 2009 and the British legal rules which apply to an inquest in a coronial court. These require a jury, in addition to the coroner, when “the death was caused by a notifiable accident, poisoning or disease”. The rules also require that evidence should be presented and witnesses testify in open court for cross-examination by lawyers and for public accountability. Instead of this, Hallett decided last month that a public inquiry will be substituted in which she alone will decide what evidence and witnesses to take in secret, and what secrets to keep out of the public record.

Hallett and the lawyers for the British government and police say this inquiry isn’t likely to open for another two years. In the meantime, the police say they will be assembling the evidence which they believe may be open to public scrutiny, and the evidence which may not. After three years of investigation of the Sturgess case, and also of the cases of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, allegedly poisoned by Novichok fifteen weeks before Sturgess;  and following police announcements of criminal indictments of three Russian military intelligence agents, this new police effort is code-named Operation VERBASCO.

In the meantime, Hallett’s statements and those of Michael Mansfield, Sturgess’s advocate in court, invite a series of questions. Not a single policeman, prosecutor, pathologist, lawyer, member of parliament, or forensic expert in the United Kingdom has thought to ask them, at least not yet and not in public. To anticipate and to assist them, therefore, read Hallett’s statements in italics; the questions follow in bold.

The homepage header on the Hallett inquest website.

A statutory inquiry would permit me to allow some evidence to be heard in closed session, from which members of the public and core participants may be excluded. Although such a closed hearing would, in usual circumstances, be undesirable, the national security concerns in this case means that the sensitive evidence is likely only to be able to be examined and tested in a closed hearing or not at all.

So some evidence cannot be examined because of national security concerns – does that also apply to exculpatory evidenceIf the evidence showed that the three accused could not have committed the crime, would it be in the interests of national security not to reveal it? 

I have seen and my team have seen sufficient material of a highly relevant and relevant nature to the investigation that is far too sensitive to be made public, even in gisted form, and I should emphasise that both I and my team are well used to the option of gisting material where it is available. In my view it is not available in this instance. 

Is the material that is “highly relevant” for the investigation still taken into account for the judgment, even though none of the interested persons, the accused, and the public can see it? 

In relation to the national security context, as the Metropolitan Police and Thames Valley Police have explained in their joint submissions, the national security considerations are grave and include threat to life. 

Can it be specified whose life is at continuing risk? The lives of witnesses, police officers,  secret service agents, or the Skripals? 

There are national security concerns about not only this material but that held by the police and others, including documents that may not bear a security marking, and there are concerns that some material could create a risk of future attacks. 

Attacks on whom? In other words, it is implied here that the disclosure of certain materials could provoke further attacks by the Russian state. Does this risk relate to testimonies of as yet unidentified witnesses? Are acts of revenge are feared against Russians who work for MI5 and MI6?

These submissions about disclosure may appear rather arid, but at the bottom of it all is a concern to do our best that no step is taken in these proceedings that may either make the risk of a further Novichok episode more likely or may reduce the capability of Government agencies effectively responding to any such incident should it take place. 

The concern is repeated again of a fresh Russian attack.In Hallett’s hearing,  Sturgess’s advocate Michael Mansfield said on this point: The fears that are being raised today that the community may be put at risk by the disclosure exercise, it might be, if in fact finally decisions are taken which involve the revelations that are invidious. But we haven’t reached that stage, so I think we don’t need references to that at this point. What could such “invidious revelations” be? Are they new revelations about the role of Russian, or perhaps British intelligence?  Mansfield adds: I hope it is not unfair to say that obviously we are dancing in the dark in this case, more than anyone else, we have absolutely no idea what is just around — we have an idea, but of course a lot of material has been in the public domain anyway. What materials is the lawyer referring to that are so new and so invidious that in more than three years since Mansfield’s client died, not a word has been hear of them before? Mansfield answered in oracular form: So therefore this process is probably the only one that is going to reach the truth of one of the most devastating attacks — well, it was described — since the Second World War. So whether it can be described in that way continually, I don’t know, because there are lots of other things going on. However, it is extremely serious. Would Mansfield say this if he, representing one of the victims, believed the British government’s official narrative to be true ? 

As the police have explained in their submissions, the investigations also concerned a wide geographical area, not just the deceased, Dawn Sturgess, but other victims of the related Novichok poisonings, Sergei and Yulia Skripal, Charlie Rowley and two police officers.

Now it is officially confirmed that not only Wiltshire police sergeant Nicholas Bailey was novichoked but another police officer too. Is this the Salisbury hospital outpatient who, months after he was tested, was found to have Novichok in an old blood sample? Who is he or she? Was this policeman on the team of three who broke into Skripal’s house? Or, earlier, was it the police officer who gathered evidence at the park bench where the Skripals were found? These questions are important because the answers would clarify where the source of the Novichok was.

In inquest Hallett is required to enforce the Coroners Act definition of “interested person” – Section 47 -- and identify for inclusion in public evidence-taking those accused of the crime allegedly causing death; direct witnesses of the alleged weapon of the crime;  and “a medical examiner exercising functions in relation to the death of the deceased.” Hallett announced on April 29 her list of “interested persons”. She excluded (left to right) Sergei and Yulia Skripal; police detective Bailey; and Dr Philip Lumb, the first medical examiner to conduct a post-mortem for Sturgess. The Skripals have been forbidden to speak in public. Bailey has publicly testified to symptoms proving he had not been poisoned with Novichok.  For Lumb’s role in identifying the cause of death which first coroner David Ridley included in his certificate for release of Sturgess’s body for cremation, read more and this. By replacing the inquest with a public inquiry, these witnesses may be questioned in secret without public record.

Operation VERBASCO has now provided approximately 800 witness statements for preliminary inspection. A significant proportion of these statements are continuity statements rather than first-hand accounts of the poisonings. 

Are there any first-hand accounts? Who could give such a first-hand account? Sergei and Yulia Skripal? A neighbour by their house? 

Six other organisations have responded to our disclosure requests…The organisations involved are: the Wiltshire air ambulance, …

What could ambulance pilots and paramedics reveal about their mission? Or is that information which will never see the public light?

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