A coroner refused to rule that Boris Berezovsky, the former Russian businessman found last year with a noose around his neck, committed suicide, saying the burden of proof was too high to determine his cause of death.
Coroner Peter Bedford issued the ruling yesterday after two days of testimony from medical professionals, employees and family about Berezovsky’s state of mind before he died at his home outside London on March 23, 2013. A pathologist hired by Berezovsky’s family testified he may have been strangled, preventing the coroner from entering a suicide verdict.
“It is impossible for me to find that he took his own life,” Bedford said at the inquest in Windsor, England. “It is impossible for me to find he was unlawfully killed.”
The ruling will only serve to deepen the intrigue around Berezovsky, one of the first Russian oligarchs to wield enormous wealth and power in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. His fortunes began to decline after Vladimir Putin took power in 2000.
Berezovsky’s death was “like him, a mystery,” said Timothy Bell, the Russian’s former spokesman at Bell Pottinger in London.
“I’ve never been convinced by the suicide story” but “I don’t have the faintest idea what happened,” he said. “I think that a lot of disinformation was spread about Boris. One of my jobs was to try and correct that.”
Witnesses at the inquest said March 26 that he was a “broken man” on anti-depressants who often talked about killing himself after losing a multi-million pound lawsuit against Roman Abramovich, the Russian owner of the Chelsea Football Club in 2012. Berezovsky’s bodyguard, who discovered his corpse, testified that his employer frequently complained about financial problems and couldn’t pay creditors about 200 million pounds ($330 million).
Members of the Berezovsky family declined to comment on the verdict as they left the court.
Bedford said the testimony of Bernd Brinkmann, a pathologist and family friend of the Berezovskys, prevented him from issuing a verdict of suicide. Brinkmann suggested that Berezovsky was strangled by another person, rather than at his own hands.
One of Berezovsky’s daughters, Elizaveta, testified that she feared poison was involved in her father’s death, despite originally agreeing with medical and police evidence that the cause was suicide.
“I can think of many people who would be interested in my father’s death,” she said giving evidence yesterday.
Brinkmann is known as the pathologist who proved that the hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in 1982 of Roberto Calvi, known as “God’s banker,” was in fact murder. He told reporters yesterday that he hadn’t been paid for his evidence, but he intended to charge Berezovsky’s family for his hours worked.
Still, Bedford distanced himself from a possible murder, saying he couldn’t find any motive to kill Berezovsky after he lost the lawsuit. Police said last year that Berezovsky was found in a bathroom of his mansion and they weren’t treating the death as suspicious.
“He was a man who suffered from depression,” Bedford said. “He was under incredible financial pressure of a sort that none of us can readily contemplate.”
The coroner, by law, can’t decide the cause of a death if he has any doubt that there may be another explanation otherwise known as beyond reasonable doubt in British courts.
A series of pathologists and policemen had given evidence at the inquest, all saying that suicide was the cause of death. A U.K. Home Office forensic doctor conducted a full exam
A U.K. Home Office pathologist and “his findings were considered alongside examination of the ligature, detailed toxicology, physical evidence recovered from the scene and the decease medical history,” Thames Valley Police said in a statement posted on their website. “The investigation could find nothing to support the hypothesis of third party involvement.”
Once a billionaire, Berezovsky had lived in self-imposed exile in the U.K. to avoid prosecution in Russia. No stranger to Russian power as a friend and confidant of former President Boris Yeltsin, he sparred publicly with Putin.
“It appears that the coroner has opened the door for a continuation of an investigation,” said Edward Mermelstein, a New York attorney who has represented wealthy Russian clients. “Since politics is driving the train on this questioned suicide, we may see the government get further involved.”
Berezovsky fled Russia for the U.K. in 2000 after backing Putin in his first presidential campaign. He was given political asylum three years later.
Berezovsky said in a 2007 interview that he was worth $4 billion and that he was using a part of his fortune to finance “a revolution in Russia without blood.” Forbes magazine dropped the tycoon from its rich list in 2010, after estimating his wealth at $1 billion the previous year.