LONDON (AP) — The killers of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko may have harmed the health of thousands of Londoners as they trailed radioactive polonium-210 around the city, a lawyer for British police said Thursday.
Richard Horwell told an inquiry into Litvinenko's death that the killing — which police blame on two Russians directed by elements in the Kremlin — may have exposed "hundreds if not thousands of Londoners" to radioactive contamination.
"We will never know how dangerous the exposure of polonium to the public at large will be and what long-term effects will be visited on Londoners," Horwell said.
Litvinenko, a KGB officer-turned-Kremlin critic who fled to Britain in 2000, died in 2006, three weeks after drinking tea laced with polonium-210 at a London hotel. On his deathbed, Litvinenko accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of ordering his assassination — a claim Moscow denies.
British authorities say there is evidence of Russian state involvement, and police have accused two Russians who met Litvinenko in London, Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi, of carrying out the killing. Both deny involvement.
Horwell said the "the science is such that the finger points unwaveringly" at Kovtun and Lugovoi.
"The Metropolitan Police Service want Lugovoi and Kovtun to be tried in this country for murder," Horwell said.
But that seems a remote prospect. Moscow refuses to extradite the suspects. Lugovoi is now a lawmaker in Russia, and in March he was given a medal by Putin for services to the nation.
Horwell said that "no matter how many state honors Putin may pin to Lugovoi's chest for services to the motherland ... Lugovoi and Kovtun have no credible answer to the scientific evidence and to the trail of polonium they left behind."
Traces of the radioactive isotope, which is deadly if ingested in tiny quantities, were found in sites across London that the pair visited, including hotel rooms, restaurants, nightclubs and the stadium of soccer team Arsenal.
Lawyers are making closing statements at the months-long inquiry, which is due to end Friday. Judge Robert Owen, who has heard from dozens of witnesses and seen secret evidence from the British intelligence services, plans to release his conclusions by the end of the year.
Horwell said it was clear that "the Russian state in one form or another is likely to have been the sponsor of this plot." Litvinenko had criticized his former employer, the FSB, successor to the KGB, and accused Putin of being involved in criminal activities.
Litvinenko also co-authored a book blaming the Russian government for involvement in a series of apartment building explosions in 1999 that were blamed on Chechen rebels.
"The Russian state had reasons aplenty for wishing Litvinenko not only harm, but death," Horwell said.
The Kremlin has denied all Litvinenko's accusations against the government and Putin.