British spy agencies may be ordered to hand over intelligence exposed by BuzzFeed News that Alexander Perepilichnyy was likely assassinated at the behest of Vladimir Putin.
BuzzFeed News revealed on Monday that US spy agencies have handed their British counterparts high-grade intelligence that Perepilichnyy was likely “assassinated on direct orders from Putin or people close to him” after blowing the whistle on a vast crime by Russian government officials. Yet police said Perepilichnyy had died naturally of a heart attack.
Lawyers challenging the police case have now asked the judge hearing his inquest to order MI6 to disclose the intelligence MI6 received.
Judge Nicholas Hilliard QC said on Wednesday that he would “carefully” consider the lawyers’ request. If he finds that Britain’s secret services have withheld evidence relevant to Perepilichnyy’s death, Hilliard would likely need to suspend the inquest, which does not have the powers to consider classified information. Only a public inquiry, like the one that found that Putin had “probably” ordered the murder of defector and former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, could entertain such evidence.
Theresa May is facing growing calls from MPs, lawyers, and campaigners to respond urgently to the revelations. A Conservative MP urged the prime minister to “move quickly to reassure the public,” while the prosecutor who headed the case against Litvinenko’s killers demanded she reverse her “supine” response to the “real suspicions” that the Kremlin had claimed another victim on UK soil.
Perepilichnyy collapsed and died while out jogging near his home in the exclusive gated community of St George’s Hill in Surrey after returning from a mysterious trip to Paris in November 2012. The financier had been receiving threats ever since he came forward to expose a $230 million tax fraud by corrupt Russian government officials. Surrey police declared "there were no suspicious circumstances surrounding his death”, but two years later a plant expert at Kew Gardens told the inquest she had identified traces of a deadly poison in his stomach.
Police still insist that there is no evidence of foul play, and May’s government has invoked national security powers to withhold evidence from the inquest into the cause of his death. But BuzzFeed News revealed that a highly classified report on Russian state assassinations compiled for the US Congress by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence last year asserts with “high confidence” that Perepilichnyy’s murder was sanctioned by Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to two US intelligence officials. MI6 officers who agreed with this assessment were apparently silenced, a serving US intelligence official said, because “their efforts to publicly declare that Perepilichnyy was assassinated on British soil had deeper political implications”. An ODNI spokesperson said the agency had “no comment beyond confirming that we prepared the report for Congress”.
French police are treating Perepilichnyy’s death as a suspected assassination, but say they have been repeatedly stonewalled by their British counterparts. Perepilichnyy travelled to Paris before his death for a secret assignation with a 22-year-old Ukrainian woman named Elmira Medynska. Medynska still lives in Paris and gave an exclusive interview to BuzzFeed News. But police never spoke to her, and she is not expected to testify at the coroner’s inquest.
The long-delayed ongoing inquest into Perepilichnyy’s death began on June 5 and is due to run for up to four weeks. On one side, lawyers for Surrey police and for Perepilichnyy’s widow Tatiana argue that the financier died of natural causes. Arguing that he was murdered are the US financier Bill Browder, who is investigating the fraud Perepilichnyy exposed because the money was stolen from taxes paid by his Moscow-based hedge fund, Hermitage Capital Management, and Legal & General, Perepilichnyy’s life insurance company.
On Wednesday at the Old Bailey, lawyers for both Hermitage and Legal & General asked that the coroner request more information from US and UK intelligence under a Schedule 5 order, which gives the coroner powers to compel someone to testify or produce documents. The court cannot order authorities from the US or other countries outside its jurisdiction, but could request their assistance.
“On the face of it, this is highly pertinent information,” said Hermitage lawyer Henrietta Hill QC, citing the classified Office of the Director of National Intelligence report and the “silenced” MI6 officers. Hill noted that the BBC had independently verified BuzzFeed News’ main revelations.
Lawyers for Surrey police and for Tatiana Perepilichnyy downplayed the new intelligence. “It is regrettable there are no on-the-record sources,” said Fiona Barton, who represents Surrey police.
The inquest into Perepilichnyy’s death was delayed for years, in part because the Home Office, then led by May, requested that documents be withheld from public scrutiny. A High Court judge ultimately sided with the Home Office, on condition that the coroner, while examining the evidence, consider “whether a public inquiry is needed.”
Outside of court, pressure on May continued to build. Ken Macdonald, the former director of public prosecutions who charged Andrei Lugovoi with the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, issued a scathing rebuke of the government’s handling of the Perepilichnyy case.
“We are seeing a weak and apparently flawed police investigation and a British government perhaps more focussed on preventing relevant material from coming into the public domain than in exposing the truth,” Macdonald said. “Theresa May needs urgently to explain why we seem to be so supine in the face of a real suspicion that Alexander Perepilichnyy is another victim of the Russian government's well known tendency to react against its perceived enemies with the most disgusting displays of violence, wherever they are in the world.”
May’s fellow conservative, MP Richard Benyon, also urged her to respond. "If there is even a perception of a failure to properly investigate a death, the government needs to move quickly to reassure the public and EU neighbors that we are on the top of any illegal activity, especially state-sponsored murder," said Benyon, who served on the Intelligence and Security Committee of the most recent parliament.
Adding to the list of MPs demanding answers, BuzzFeed News has obtained a letter from the Liberal Democrats’ foreign affairs spokesman Tom Brake to home secretary Amber Rudd asking her to make a statement about Perepilichnyy’s death and the ongoing inquest. “I believe that it is to the public’s benefit for the Government to be forthright on what assessment they have made regarding this matter and if they believe a criminal act occurred,” Brake wrote.
The advocacy group Transparency International demanded a deeper probe into Perepilichnyy’s death. “Given the widespread concerns over how this case has been handled, a thorough and transparent independent investigation is now necessary, both to establish the true facts of the case and to establish whether there has been any inappropriate conduct by those involved.”
Some watching the case are beginning to wonder whether a full public inquiry — similar to what ultimately happened with Litvinenko’s case — is the only option.
“If the current inquest cannot get to the bottom of the situation,” the Westminster think tank Foreign Policy Centre said in a statement, “pressure for a public inquiry will continue to grow.”
Hilliard, the coroner, did not make clear on Wednesday when he would decide whether to demand access to the intelligence information. The inquest is due to continue on Thursday.