A top nuclear scientist found stabbed to death after returning from a research trip to Russia was given an official briefing before he travelled and was not judged to be in any danger, the British government has declared.
The body of Dr Matthew Puncher was found riddled with knife wounds in 2016, weeks after his nuclear research helped a judge determine that the KGB defector Alexander Litvinenko had been poisoned in London by Russia’s secret service – and shortly after he visited the country on separate government business.
The police and coroner declared Puncher’s death a suicide – concluding that he had managed to stab and slash himself repeatedly with two separate knives before succumbing to his wounds. But BuzzFeed News last year revealed that US intelligence agencies had passed MI6 evidence connecting Puncher’s death – and 13 others – to Russian state or mafia assassins, yet the police had treated every case as non-suspicious.
The government denied failing in its duty of care towards Puncher in a letter to Lord Rooker, a Labour peer who wrote to Theresa May in November asking why the scientist had been sent to Russia on state business in the immediate aftermath of the Litvinenko verdict. “It was known how explosive the issue was between the UK and Russia, so why was Dr Puncher not withdrawn?” he asked, noting that the prime minister had made public her commitment to “the population being kept safe” and yet “it appears the Government failed in respect of Dr Puncher”.
Lord Rooker received a response last week noting his concerns but insisting that the government had no reason to believe Puncher was at risk when he was assigned to visit the Mayak nuclear facility in Russia to study the effects of long-term radiation exposure on the local population.
Steve Brine, the parliamentary under secretary of state for public health, wrote that Puncher had been “properly briefed” before his visit and “there was no extant risk considered or known of to give cause for concern”. He added: “It goes without saying that we were profoundly sad to learn of the death at such a young age of Dr Puncher, a dedicated and highly valued public servant, and we extend our sincere condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.”
Lord Rooker told BuzzFeed News the government had not provided enough information in its letter to determine how carefully the risks of the Mayak visit had been assessed – but said it appeared from the response that any consideration given to Puncher’s safety in the aftermath of the Litvinenko verdict had been “very, very superficial”.
Brine wrote that Puncher had not been part of the team of nuclear scientists who led the emergency response to Litvinenko’s poisoning with polonium, but acknowledged that he had been brought in to measure the dose of the radioactive chemical used to poison the defector. The discovery of the levels of polonium in Litvinenko’s system put the Kremlin squarely in the frame for his killing. Russia, which keeps the substance under rigorous state control, is the only country in the world that produces polonium in the amounts used to kill Litvinenko. On the basis of that evidence, the judge leading the public inquiry into Litvinenko’s death concluded in 2016 that the defector had been assassinated by hitmen sent by Russia’s secret service and the operation had “probably” been approved by President Vladimir Putin.
Weeks after that damning verdict – dismissed by the Kremlin as a “blatant provocation” by the British government – Puncher was sent to the same Mayak nuclear facility where polonium is manufactured to carry out state-funded research.
The investigation into Puncher’s death by BuzzFeed News uncovered suspicions that the scientist and his colleagues were being tailed by the Russian secret service during visits to the country in the months before he died. And though British police testified at the inquest into Puncher's death that “no one in his family seemed particularly surprised he had taken his own life”, BuzzFeed News revealed that officers never interviewed several close relatives and colleagues, some of whom suspect foul play. One source close to the family said Puncher’s death was “highly suspicious” and likely connected to work he was doing in Russia that came to the attention of the FSB. “If that’s the case,” the relative said, “it could only have come from Putin.”
Lord Rooker’s letter also raised questions over why none of the 14 Russian-linked deaths exposed by BuzzFeed News have been treated as suspicious by the British police – which the government has still failed to answer. He used a speech in the chamber of the House of Lords last June to call for all 14 cases to be fully investigated.
The peer has joined a growing chorus of politicians on both sides of the Atlantic calling for action in response to a spate of suspected assassinations on British soil that the government has, so far, ignored. Ben Bradshaw, the former Labour cabinet minister, demanded a proper investigation into “unexplained Russia-related deaths in Britain” in a speech in the House of Commons last November in the wake of BuzzFeed News’ investigation, and the matter has also been raised by the former Tory minister John Whittingdale.
The Commons intelligence and security committee has convened an investigation into Russian interference in the UK and its members are understood to be examining the evidence published by BuzzFeed News.
An inquest into one of the 14 deaths – that of Alexander Perepilichnyy, a financier who dropped dead in Surrey after blowing the whistle on massive Russian money laundering scheme – was upended in June after BuzzFeed News exposed explosive intelligence connecting his death directly to the Kremlin. It has now been delayed till the spring while the coroner seeks fresh evidence from the government and the police in the wake of the revelations.
In the US, a report by Democratic members of the Senate’s foreign relations committee this month warned Western governments not to ignore a spate of suspected Russian assassinations in Britain and the US, exposed by BuzzFeed News last year, as part of Putin’s assault on the global democratic order.