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Spy Death Probe to Hold Closed Hearing on U.K. Documents

The inquiry into the death of a former Russian spy poisoned in London with radioactive tea should close its hearings to the press and public when it reviews files the U.K. said contain sensitive information, the judge leading the probe ruled.

Judge Robert Owen issued the decision today after lawyers for the Home Office asked for a so-called public immunity certificate, or PII, over information about Alexander Litvinenko’s ties to British intelligence. Disclosure of the information would risk “serious harm to the public,” the Home Office said.

Litvinenko, a critic of the Kremlin who lived in London, died in November 2006 about three weeks after being exposed to radioactive polonium. British prosecutors said after a prior investigation in 2007 that former Russian intelligence officer Andrei Lugovoi should be charged with murder. There is evidence indicating the Russian government was involved in the 2006 poisoning, lawyers working on the inquest said in December.

The British government is attempting to stall the inquiry to preserve trade with Russia, lawyers for Litvinenko’s widow Marina, said at a hearing yesterday.

“We cannot allow Her Majesty’s Government, by misusing the PII system, to use this inquest to dance to the Russian tarantella,” Ben Emmerson, one of the lawyers, said at a hearing yesterday. “This has all the hallmarks of a situation which is shaping up to be a stain on British justice.”

Owen said the application made on behalf of the Secretary of State “must be subjected to the most stringent and critical examination,” while also indicating he would “conduct this inquest with the greatest possible degree of openness and transparency.”

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