05:46, July 14 209 0 theguardian.com

2020-07-14 05:46:03
Salisbury attack: inquest must look into role of Russian officials, court told

The role played by senior Russian officials in the Salisbury nerve agent attack should be investigated during an inquest into a mother-of-three who died in the poisonings, the high court has been told.

Lawyers for Dawn Sturgess’s family are arguing that public concern over the poisonings is so profound that her inquest should be widened to examine who ordered the attack and the network that backed the two agents accused of actually carrying it out.

The family’s skeleton argument names two senior officials at the GRU, the Russian Federation’s military intelligence service, and a third man alleged to have been involved in the UK end of the operation.

It claims that public confidence in the UK government’s ability to protect its citizens risks being undermined if those who ordered and organised the attack were not held to account.

The former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were the initial victims of the novichok attack on 4 March 2018. Both they and police officer, DS Nick Bailey, who was also poisoned, survived.

At the end of June 2018, Sturgess and her partner, Charlie Rowley, were poisoned in Amesbury, eight miles north of Salisbury, after he found a fake perfume bottle containing novichok. Rowley survived but Sturgess, 44, died on 8 July.

In December, the senior coroner for Wiltshire and Swindon, David Ridley, ruled that he would not consider whether any Russian state agents were involved other than the two main suspects, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov.

On day one of the family’s high court challenge to this ruling, their barrister, Michael Mansfield QC, claimed in his skeleton argument the coroner’s stance meant the “key questions of how, and by whom, the operation was directed and arranged” would not be considered. He said it was “inconceivable” that the “Salisbury Two” - Petrov and Boshirov – operated in “a bubble”.

Mansfield said it has been alleged that the two senior GRU officials, Vladimir Alexseyev and Igor Kostyukov, have been implicated in the attacks. He flagged up media allegations that a third man was involved and present in the UK at the time of the attack, GRU officer Denis Sergeev.

Calling for the high court to quash the coroner’s decision, Mansfield said investigators had concluded the novichok in the perfume bottle could have killed “thousands of people”.

He said: “Widespread harm resulted from this attack: Ms Sturgess was killed; four other people suffered serious injuries in life-threatening circumstances, including a British police officer; and other police officers, members of the emergency services, paramedics and members of the public appear to have been contaminated.”

The barrister said: “The public are likely to be most concerned about the issues the senior coroner has ruled out of scope – namely the source of the novichok and the responsibility of senior Russian state figures who authorised and directed the operation - rather than the actions of the two subordinates who carried out its final stages.”

Mansfield argued the inquest should also look at issues such as:

Whether the novichok that killed Sturgess was exactly the same as that used in Salisbury.

Whether the perfume bottle was used in Salisbury and if so, how it survived unopened, for nearly four months.

Whether further novichok could remain in the UK.

He said: “Given the complete prohibition on the use of nerve agents the conspiracy must have involved three levels of Russian state involvement: authorising and commissioning the attack at the highest echelons; management and oversight at the place of origin and on the ground in the target territory, security and the integrity of this highly lethal poison; and a participant support network in the target territory, with a contingency plan should things go wrong (especially medical assistance and safe premises as the slightest contamination has rapid effects and would prevent travel).”