The widow of Alexander Litvinenko has submitted a claim against Russia to the European court of human rights (ECHR), seeking €3.5m (£3.1m) in compensation for his murder by radiation poisoning in London.
Marina Litvinenko is requesting punitive damages and payment for accumulated lost income. A public inquiry concluded that her husband’s murder in 2006 was probably ordered by Vladimir Putin.
The submission also asks the Strasbourg judges to rule on the significance of the pattern of targeted assassinations and attempted killings allegedly carried out by Russian state agents across Europe and the Middle East.
Among the attacks listed are the 2018 poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury and the subsequent death of Dawn Sturgess after she handled a discarded container filled with the nerve agent novichok.
Russia, like the UK, is a member of the Council of Europe, which oversees the ECHR. To date the court has never awarded punitive or exemplary damages. It is being urged to do so in the exceptional circumstances of this claim and to prevent Russia from continuing its policy of covert elimination.
The legal arguments, submitted by Ben Emmerson QC, who represents Marina Litvinenko, refashion a claim first sent to Strasbourg in 2007 by her then lawyers, one of whom was Keir Starmer QC, now leader of the Labour party.
The UK government is cooperating with the Strasbourg court as it gathers evidence to assess the case. However, it has declined to intervene directly in support of the widow’s claim, partially on the grounds that it could affect the way the court deals with future British cases.
Alexander Litvinenko was a former KGB officer who spoke out about corruption inside Russia before fleeing with his family to Britain. He was poisoned with the radioactive isotope polonium-210.
The inquiry found it had been administered by two Russian agents, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, whom Litvinenko met in London. They have repeatedly denied involvement.
Pattern of alleged Russian state-sponsored attacks
The former acting president of the breakaway Chechen Republic was killed along with two bodyguards in a car bombing in Doha, Qatar.
Litvinenko drank tea laced with polonium-210 at a hotel in Mayfair, central London, where he had met two Russian intelligence officers.
Skripal and his daughter Yulia survived being poisoned with novichok in Salisbury, England. Another woman, Dawn Sturgess, who handled a discarded container of novichok, died later in the year.
The Chechen separatist was shot dead in Berlin. A man travelling on a passport issued by the Russian authorities in a false name was arrested and is facing trial in Germany for the killing.
The Russian opposition leader was poisoned with novichok in Siberia in August. He was flown to Germany and has since recovered.
Marina Litvinenko told the Guardian: “It is almost 14 years since my husband was killed. We had to fight to get a public inquiry. It has taken a long time to bring this case to justice. It was a state-sponsored crime. Now we are talking not just about my husband being poisoned but also Sergei and Yulia Skripal and the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. These were chemical weapons, forbidden weapons of destruction.
“If we can’t bring the people who committed this crime to London … then someone still needs to be held responsible. The Russian government under Putin never says sorry. As the [widow from the] first [poisoning] case, it is very important to me to take it to Strasbourg and stand up for my rights.”
She said David Miliband, when foreign secretary, “paid attention to what happened to my family” and met her. She also met Theresa May when she was home secretary. She has not been able to meet Boris Johnson or other ministers since then to discuss her case.
In her compensation claim, Litvinenko seeks around €2m in loss of earnings that her husband and she would have made through their work. There is also an additional element for psychological care, for counselling to overcome the trauma of her loss.
A further €1.5m is claimed to reflect the seriousness of the violation of her rights as well as exemplary, or punitive, damages to deter Russia from further clandestine assassinations.
The case raises complex legal questions about how the ECHR applies the principle of extraterritorial jurisdiction where one state carries out assassinations on the territory of another.
A letter from Paul McKell, the legal director at the Foreign Office, to Litvinenko’s lawyers – seen by the Guardian – explains that the UK government cannot agree to her request to intervene formally in the case.
The government is already participating in the proceedings, the letter says, “to the extent that it is preparing a response to the request by the [ECHR] to provide comments”.
However, it continues: “The application raises issues, such as those relating to jurisdiction, that are sensitive and have some potential to impact on UK cases in the future.”
Among others who have applied to intervene is Agnès Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.
Emmerson, who recently joined the US law firm King & Spalding International, said: “I am very pleased that Marina Litvinenko now has the backing and heft of a powerful US-based international law firm behind her in her case against Russia in Strasbourg.” The case is being taken on a pro bono basis.
“The commitment of a law firm that is close to the new administration in Washington is a big step forward in her quest for accountability and justice for her husband’s horrific murder,” Emmerson said. “I’m quite confident that the incoming Biden administration will take a much stronger position against Russia’s use of chemical and biological weapons to assassinate political opponents at home and abroad, and will hold those responsible accountable for their actions.”
The Foreign Office said: “The murder of Alexander Litvinenko was a blatant and unacceptable breach of international law. We’re committed to securing justice for the death of Mr Litvinenko, as demonstrated by the UK’s extensive police investigation and the inquiry into his death.”
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied that it was responsible for the attacks. The Russian embassy was asked to comment.