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People light candles during a gathering commemorating the death of former Russian state security officer Alexander Litvinenko in central Moscow November 22, 2008.
Credit: Reuters/Thomas Peter
Thu Aug 9, 2012 10:02am EDT
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain has appointed a senior judge to hold an inquest into the death of Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian agent turned Kremlin critic whose death from polonium poisoning in London in 2006 soured relations between London and Moscow.
Britain's Judicial Office said on Thursday it had selected Robert Owen, an experienced judge, for the task and that he would hold a hearing in September to decide how the inquest will be conducted and whether it will be heard before a jury.
Litvinenko's wife Marina, who lives in Britain, told Reuters she felt relieved the decision had finally been made.
"I am just happy," she said.
The decision to appoint a judge comes a week after Russian President Vladimir Putin made his first visit to London in nine years to watch judo with British Prime Minister David Cameron and risks souring slowly improving relations.
Ties between Britain and Russia plunged to a post-Cold War low after Litvinenko's killing complete with tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions.
Russia has since refused to extradite Andrei Lugovoy, the ex-KGB bodyguard Britain wants to prosecute for Litvinenko's murder by poisoning with radioactive polonium.
The Judicial Office, which is independent of government ministers, said the timing of the inquest announcement was unconnected to Putin's visit or any other political consideration.
Britain rarely appoints judges as coroners in charge of inquests, reserving their appointment for the most complex and high-profile cases, such as the 1997 death of Princess Diana or the killings of London commuters in suicide attacks in 2005.
Marina Litvinenko has long argued that the Russian state was complicit in her husband's murder and has demanded that Britain hold a wide-ranging inquest into his death.
Litvinenko, who had been granted British citizenship, was poisoned with polonium-210, a rare and highly toxic radioactive isotope, which was slipped to him in a cup of tea at a plush London hotel.
Lugovoy, who was later elected to Russia's lower house of parliament, has denied any involvement.
Britain's Foreign Office said the inquest was a judicial matter but that the government remained committed to seeking justice over Litvinenko's death.
"This was a crime which took place in the UK and involved a British citizen. Our aim remains to see this matter tried in a UK court," a government spokesman said.
(Reporting by Tim Castle; Editing by Jon Boyle)
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