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Fact, frame-up, or fiction? - Litvinenko's `deathbed testimony'.

by de Gondi Wed Dec 19th, 2012 at 06:33:33 AM EST

By David Habakkuk in London and David Loepp in Rome.

In our previous diary on the resumption of the inquest into the death of Alexander Litvinenko, we noted that prior to the fourth pre-inquest review the `interested persons' at the inquest would have available the transcript or transcripts of the interviews the police carried out with him.  

At the review, which took place last Thursday, Ben Emmerson QC, counsel for his widow Marina, gave a description of the testimony from Litvinenko which has been made available - given, supposedly, on 20 November 2006, `when he was dying.'  And - as is evident from the transcript of the proceedings - Mr Emmerson QC made deft use of the fact that it incriminates both the Russian state and, it seems clear, Andrei Lugovoi, the figure whose extradition to face charges of having deliberately murdered Litvinenko has been requested by the Crown Prosecution Service.

Rather than disposing of the problems with the conventional wisdom about how Litvinenko died which we have raised in previous diaries on this site, however, the claims which are now being made compound them.  The fact that Litvinenko incriminated the Russian state is hardly new.  When the story of his poisoning was first broken on 11 November 2006, on obscure websites associated with the Chechen insurgents, however, the clear suggestion was that the `hit man' employed by Russian intelligence had been Litvinenko's Italian associate Mario Scaramella.  This sinister Italian, it was suggested, had used promises of information about the murder of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya as a baited hook to lure Litvinenko to the Itsu sushi bar in Piccadilly - and there slipped poison into his sushi.

The conclusion to which the British investigators supposedly came, however, was that Lugovoi and/or Kovtun slipped the rare radioactive isotope polonium-210 into Litvinenko's tea, when the three met in the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel in Grosvenor Square, following the meeting at the Itsu.  However, as was brought out in diaries on this site in May and in December 2008, at the time Litvinenko's associates emphatically did not claim that the testimony he gave on 20 November incriminating Lugovoi pointed to the Pine Bar meeting.  

Moreover, two of his closest collaborators, Alex Goldfarb and Yuri Shvets, quite explicitly ruled out the possibility that he could have been poisoned at a meeting having the characteristics of that in the Pine Bar. Set in context, the claims made by counsel for Litvinenko's widow do not provide compelling evidence in support of the conventional wisdom about how Litvinenko died - indeed, they may provide just the reverse.

the next episode - afew

One of the most striking features of last Thursday's hearing was that it was short.  Two full days had been set aside for argument about which of a long list of claims about how Litvinenko met his death should be ruled within the scope of the inquest.  In the event, the proceedings were concluded by lunchtime on the first day, after the High Court judge who has been appointed to conduct the inquest, Sir Robert Owen, made clear that at this stage he did not think it appropriate to rule any of these claims - including the suggestion that Litvinenko's death might have been accident or suicide - outside the scope of his investigation.

Meanwhile Counsel to the inquest, Hugh Davies, disclosed the results of the assessment of the material made available by the British Government to the inquest - only a fraction of which has, so far, been disclosed to the `interested persons', who include Lugovoi, as well as Marina Litvinenko.  The conclusion is that, while it does not give any support for any of the other claims made about who might have poisoned Litvinenko:

Taken in isolation, our assessment is that the government material does establish a prima facie case as to the culpability of the Russian state in the death of Alexander Litvinenko.

It is, here, important to note the words `taken in isolation'.  Ever since this ABC report on 26 January 2007, anonymous British officials have been endorsing different variants of the claim that, as ABC was told, Litvinenko's death was `a "state-sponsored" assassination orchestrated by Russian security services":  an interpretation put forward  from the outset by Litvinenko's associates, which it now seems clear that the Crown Prosecution Service accepted.  It would be deeply unsurprising if - taken in isolation - the evidence presented by the British Government demonstrated that there was no basis for any such suggestion.

Another fascinating disclosure at last Thursday's hearing was that, on the day before it was held, a letter had been received from the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, expressing the intention to apply for the status of `interested person'.  Certainly, this means that materials from the British Government will be able to be seen, not in isolation, but in the context of such materials as both Lugovoi and the Investigative Committee choose to disclose.

However, in our previous diary, we suggested that there are reasons to suspect that the actual history of how Litvinenko died may be sufficiently embarrassing to a very large number of people that elements in Britain and Russia alike may have a concealed common interest in suppressing some critical information.  Obviously, not having seen the materials from the British Government, we are not in a position to make categorical statements.  What can however be shown is that such pointers as have been emerging to what is contained in those materials do little to call our suspicion into question.

Conceding Lugovoi's claims.

The statements by counsel for Marina Litvinenko were, in fact, much more peculiar than has generally been recognised.  In attempting to use what Litvinenko was supposed to have told the investigators to bolster the case against the Russian Government, Mr Emmerson QC effectively conceded that a whole range of claims made by his client and associates of Litvinenko have been lies.  

Critically, his statements make a further stage in the admission that claims by Lugovoi about the involvement of Litvinenko with MI6 which, for almost five years, had been contemptuously repudiated by his widow and others as a `smokescreen', are in substantial measure true.  

In an interview published in Izvestiya on 4 June 2006, in the wake of the CPS request for his extradition, Lugovoi stated both that Litvinenko had been recruited by MI6, and that he had `a handler, a person who knows about all his meetings and contacts':  going on to argue that `British intelligence must have known whether Litvinenko's death was accidental, a result of handling polonium incautiously' - or, at the least, that `they must have known he was handling polonium.'

Two days after the initial pre-inquest review, where counsel for Lugovoi argued that the possibility that Litvinenko's death was accident or suicide should be investigated, Marina Litvinenko conceded that  her husband had been employed by MI6.  But she restricted his involvement to consultancy work, over a period of a year in relation to an operation to combat Russian organised crime in Europe:  work done both for MI6 and MI5, for which, supposedly, he was paid tens of thousands of pounds.  

All those accounts in which, having been cast off by his long-term patron the erstwhile oligarch Boris Berezovsky, an impoverished Litvinenko had been forced into `due diligence' work, could now be shifted over onto the fiction shelves:  and their authors exposed as having either been disseminating disinformation, or gullibly accepting it.  Now, moreover, a great deal more has been conceded, as according to Mr Emmerson QC `at the time of his death, Mr Litvinenko had been, for a number of years, a registered and paid agent of MI6, with a dedicated handler, whose pseudonym was "Martin".'  What however has not been conceded is the claim that `Martin' must have known that Litvinenko was handling polonium.

Tall tales about a teapot?

However, other claims made at the Thursday hearing, if examined at all closely, reveal quite how problematic the claim that polonium was deliberately inserted into a teapot by Lugovoi and/or Kovtun actually is.  The way in which highly questionable evidence on this point has simply become part of the conventional wisdom was actually illustrated by Hugo Keith QC, counsel for Berezovsky, who is also an `interested person', in arguing that the claim that his client might have been responsible for murdering Litvinenko should be eliminated from the scope of the inquest at this stage.  

Supporting the contention that there was no basis to suspect Berezovsky, his counsel appeared to take it as established fact that a teapot used in the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel in Grosvenor Square was found to be contaminated.  It may however be pertinent to develop an analysis originally made in a diary on this site in May 2008.  There is in fact no mention whatsoever of a contaminated teapot - as distinct from a teacup - until the ABC report of 26 January 2007.

The puzzles the sudden appearance of this teapot presented were almost universally ignored in the mainstream media, but were illuminated in incisive posts by bloggers writing under the names AJStrata and 'copydude' - the latter of which was very funny.  The results of their analyses were summarised in the May 2008 diary:

A suspicious circumstance, which AJStrata and copydude have discussed at length, is the mysterious appeararance in an ABC report in late January last year of claims of a 'hot' teapot at the Millennium, supposedly giving an 'off-the-charts' reading for polonium.  While the teapot was said to have been discovered in early December, journalists had for no very obvious reason been kept in the dark about this supposedly decisive piece of evidence.  The detailed account of contamination at the Millennium in the (BBC) Panorama programme, which went out just days before the ABC report, makes no mention of it.  
How the dose could have been strong enough to leave such a high reading after six weeks of cleaning, while weak enough to take three weeks to kill Litvinenko, does seem a puzzle.  And given that the teapot appears in an ABC programme in which an unnamed 'senior official' is quoted as saying investigators have concluded that Litvinenko's death was a 'state-sponsored' assassination, the suspicion arises that disinformation is at issue.

Indeed, 'copydude' found the claim so implausible that he simply could not believe that the police had made it, and suggested that the source was the Soviet-era KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky. However, he was soon shown to have been wrong - and furthermore, it appeared that the investigators regarded the teapot as critical evidence.  

A report on 28 January 2007 in the Independent explained that 'police, understood to be "embarrassed" by the oversight in testing the teapot, now believe they have enough evidence to issue an arrest warrant for Andrei Lugovoi, a businessman and former KGB agent.' On 31 January, the BBC reported that the police had handed over a file on the investigation to the Crown Prosecution Service, and that the 'finger of suspicion' pointed 'clearly' at Lugovoi.

The `scientific analysis of scenes around London', it was made clear at the previous pre-inquest hearing, back in November, will be the penultimate one of the eight tranches of material underlying the police report to be disclosed to the `interested persons'.  At Friday's hearing, counsel for Lugovoi, Tim Owen QC, noted that as they were likely to want to investigate the scientific material, Sir Robert Owen's intention to begin the substantive hearings on 1 May next year might not allow adequate time.

But there clearly will be an opportunity for Lugovoi's team to subject the evidence relating to the teapot to serious critical analysis.  So when the substantive hearings begin, it should be reasonably clear whether a teapot which had contained the kind of quantity of polonium supposed to have killed Litvinenko, and according to the Independent, had been used to serve `potentially hundreds of other guests' since then, could still be giving an `off the charts' reading for contamination.  It will also be clear whether the continued use of such a contaminated teapot could really, as the HPA claimed, have created no risk to public health.

Moreover, the critical question of who conducted the relevant tests, and when, will also be clarified.  The announcement that a teacup used in the Pine Bar had been found to be contaminated was actually made on 9 December 2006.  It is not clear from the suggestions in the Independent that there had been an `oversight', and in the ABC report that the teapot had been identified in the `second week' of December in the ABC report, what is actually being claimed.  

The tests on the Pine Bar appear to have been carried out by the HPA.  It seems that what is being suggested is that there was a separate identification of a teapot, and a separate test, later than the testing of the main body of teacups and teapots, which somehow identified critical evidence against Lugovoi which it was judged appropriate not to publicise at the time.  If so, questions as to when and how the teapot was identified, and who tested it, may of critical relevance to the inquest.

A very great deal hangs upon all this.  If satisfactory resolutions can be provided to the problems surrounding the teapot, it may indeed be very strong - if not conclusive - evidence in support of the contention that Litvinenko was deliberately poisoned at the Pine Bar meeting.  If not - particularly taken in conjunction with evidence, some of which was presented in the May 2008 diary, and more of which has become available since, suggesting that other key claims made by the investigators are disinformation - the claims made about the teapot may be evidence that the British investigation is corrupt.

A further critical question would then be whether, as the reports from the time appear to suggest, the teapot was included in the evidence submitted to the Crown Prosecution Service.  If there were grounds to think that the claims made about it were disinformation, and it was so included, then it would appear to be prima facie evidence of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.  It would further follow that no evidence submitted by the investigators either to the CPS or to the inquest which was not corroborated by genuinely independent sources - among whom associates of Litvinenko, and also his widow, are obviously not to be included - could be regarded as reliable.

Implausible interviews?

It is in the light of the very real questions about the integrity of the police investigation that one has to look at the account given by counsel for Litvinenko's widow of what her husband said about his poisoning.  The material on which he was drawing, Mr Emmerson QC explained, derived from:

interviews conducted by the police officer, Mr Griffiths, with Marina Litvinenko, ten of them, whilst her husband was dying and after his death, the statement that followed from that process of Mr Litvinenko to the police, and the interviews of Mr Litvinenko as he was dying.

Elsewhere in materials submitted on behalf of Mrs Litvinenko, we learn that:

Alexander Litvinenko in his police interview conducted at the UCH critical care unit on 20 November 2006 accused Vladimir Putin of a criminal act and having a licence to kill.

These claims look very different, if one sets them in the context of evidence we have produced in our previous two diaries - and also, of claims made by Lugovoi, notably in the Izvestiya interview to which we have already referred, which have been ignored in the British media.

In that interview, Lugovoi claimed that the accusations against him were a frame-up, resulting from the parting of ways in business between Litvinenko's long-standing patron, Berezovsky, and Berezovsky's long-standing business partner, the Georgian oligarch Arkadi `Badri' Patarkatsishvili.  According to Lugovoi Patarkatsishvili's close association was now with him, not Berezovsky, and the frame-up was a move directed at both.

Asked for evidence, Lugovoi explained:

While Litvinenko was still conscious, my name wasn't mentioned at all.  I spoke to him by phone on November 13 - that's 13 days after the so-called poisoning. He was already in a serious condition. The photographs that the whole world saw were taken around that time. He didn't make any complaints or accusations against me. But as soon as he went into a coma, on November 21-22, my name was mentioned. What was there to stop him accusing me on November 7 or November 10? Litvinenko himself said he had been poisoned by Scaramella.

As we demonstrated in our previous diary, when the story of Litvinenko's poisoning was broken on 11 November 2006 - on obscure websites linked to the Chechen insurgents - it was suggested that he had been poisoned at the Itsu sushi bar on mid-afternoon of 1 November 2006, by Scaramella. And, up to this point, the only publicly available statement we have had from Litvinenko which we could be sure was authentic - the interview he gave to the BBC Russian Service on 11 November - shows him supporting the suggestion that he was poisoned by Scaramella at the Itsu.  

However, we also stressed that the implausible claim that Scaramella acted as an FSB `hit man' suggested that this accusation was itself a `frame-up' - just as the accusations by Litvinenko and Scaramella that the former FSB operative Oleksandr Talik was the agent of a FSB assassination plot, which led to the conviction of the Italian on aggravated calumny charges, had been.

The question of whether the conversation between Lugovoi and Litvinenko - of which a recording will almost certainly exist - is evidence establishing that the latter did not suspect the former is obviously a distinct, if related issue.  The approach taken by Mr Emmerson QC was to claim that the conversation, which he suggested was instigated by Litvinenko, and was in the presence of his wife, took place `before he realised he had been poisoned by Mr Lugovoy.'  Its purpose, according to Mr Emmerson QC, was:

to discuss their planned trip together to Spain, where they were both to provide intelligence to the Spanish prosecutor investigating Russian mafia links to the Kremlin and to Vladimir Putin.  

Tissues of lies

A critical point is that these new claims by counsel for Marina Litvinenko quite clearly imply that previous attempts by her, and by other figures associated with Litvinenko, to explain away the fact that he pointed the finger of suspicion at Scaramella are tissues of lies.  According to the testimony given by Berezovsky to the representative of the Russian Prosecutor General's Office on 31 March 2007, when he visited his long-term associate in hospital on 2 November or shortly after, Litvinenko told him that the `most probable' culprit was `either Lugovoi, or the one who was with him1.' In the account given in the May 2007 study Death of a Dissident by Litvinenko's widow Marina and his associate Alex Goldfarb, it is claimed that when Goldfarb visited the hospital on 15 November, Litvinenko explained that:

The Italian has nothing to do with it.  I named him on purpose, as a trick.  The real man is Andrei Lugovoy, but please keep it secret.  I am trying to lure him back to London.

As was discussed in the December 2008 diary, a completely different account was given by another associate of Litvinenko's, the U.S.-based former KGB operative Yuri Shvets, in a half-hour programme devoted to his version of how Litvinenko died on BBC Radio on 16 December 2006.  This was recycled in an article in the Moscow Times on 22 December 2006 by Catherine Belton, now a correspondent with the Financial Times.  According to this version, at precisely the time when Litvinenko was supposedly incriminating Lugovoi to Berezovsky, he genuinely - not as a trick - suspected Scaramella.

He regarded him as the prime suspect in his poisoning for at least three or four days after he was in the hospital, said Shvets, who was in telephone contact with Litvinenko.
"I was saying over and over again, 'Forget about Scaramella,'" Shvets said. When Litvinenko finally recalled the meeting with Lugovoi too, Shvets said he told him: "Sasha, you are crazy. All big security companies in Moscow are controlled by the FSB."

A problem with this account by Belton, as also that given by the veteran BBC presenter Tom Mangold in the BBC Radio programme, is that, as was noted in the December 2008 diary, it suggests that the latest Litvinenko could have recalled the meeting with Lugovoi is 8 November.  Accordingly, it cannot easily explain the fact that the finger of suspicion was pointed at Scaramella when the story of Litvinenko's poisoning broke on 11 November, still less that it was still being pointed in that direction when it was - very belatedly - picked up by the mainstream British media on 19 November.

Like Shvets, Mr Emmerson QC is trying to cope with the problem posed by Litvinenko's incrimination of Scaramella by positing a change of mind.  But unless he wants to place the conversation between Litvinenko and Lugovoi much earlier than the latter does, he has implicitly accused Shvets, as well as his client, Berezovsky, and Goldfarb of lying.

This obviously seriously compromises the evidential value of the ten interviews recorded by Marina Litvinenko while her husband was dying.  It would however appear likely that the single interview with Litvinenko himself does refute Lugovoi's clear implication that the claims made by Litvinenko's associates from 20 November on that Litvinenko had pointed the finger of suspicion at him were fabrications pure and simple.

The question of what the evidence of Litvinenko's statement is going to establish, however, is a quite different matter.  What Mr Emmerson QC was also trying to skirt round is another fundamental problem created by testimony from Marina Litvinenko, as well as other figures closely associated with her husband.  The April 2007 study The Litvinenko File by the former BBC Moscow Correspondent Martin Sixsmith contains a graphic description, presumably sourced from her, of how her husband interpreted what had happened to him.  

At 6 a.m. on the morning of 2 November, it is suggested, he concluded that the - very violent - symptoms he was experiencing were those of a `chemical weapons attack',  and told his wife:  `It looks like they've poisoned me.'  If a `dissident spy' from Russia - to use the Guardian's formulation - develops such symptoms, one would expect that, very soon afterwards, competent police officers would take a full statement from him.  

As a matter of basic investigative procedure, one would expect that they would obtain a full account not only of his suspicions about what had happened to him, but of everyone he had met, and everything he had eaten or drunk, in the period leading up to his developing them.

At last Thursday's hearing, Mr Emmerson QC contended that:

in the days when he was in hospital and being interviewed, questions were being asked of him about any associations that he may have had that could have put him at risk of poisoning.

Apparently, Litvinenko was `initially reluctant' to tell the police he was an MI6 agent, but gave them the number of his handler, and told them to ring him.  What is not explained is whether Litvinenko was ever asked to provide the kind of basic timeline of his meetings which one would expect any competent detective to want at the outset of an investigation.  If it was, of course, it would be of great interest to know whether any mention was made by Litvinenko of his having met Lugovoi on 1 November 2006.

Suspect suspicions?

In relation to the case which Marina Litvinenko now appears to be making, however, a critical point is that it appears to be suggested that the change of mind by her husband, leading him to realise that Lugovoi was his killer, happened between 13 and 20 November:  with the only hard evidence coming from an interview on the latter date.

Let us however look rather more closely at what his associates claimed at the time.  A first point is that the diversion of suspicion from Scaramella to Lugovoi happens in an interview with Gordievsky, published in the Times on 20 November.  The history of the publication of this interview, and of the events that followed, is of critical importance in assessing whether these new claims by Marina Litvinenko are any more reliable than her previous claims have proven to be.

A critically important fact is that - as was noted in the December 2008 diary - Yuri Shvets had a long-standing contact called Karon von Gerhke.  As was explained in that diary, she was in a position to know that Shvets was not the impartial `due diligence' specialist the BBC portrayed him as being, but a central figure in the `information operations' of Berezovsky and Litvinenko - and also Scaramella.  On 17 November, when he had first brought up the Litvinenko affair with her, Shvets had forwarded the stories from websites associated with the Chechen insurgents, in which Litvinenko incriminated Scaramella.

At 9.54 pm EST on 19 November - that is, 3.54 am in Britain - Shvets forwarded to Karon the Gordievsky interview, with a note saying `This article is VERY informative.'  Let us then look at precisely what this `very informative' article said.  A key passage, in which the finger of suspicion is shifted to Lugovoi, ran as follows:

The man came to London, posing as a businessman and a friend. He met Mr Litvinenko at a hotel and put poison in his tea. That was before Mr Litvinenko had lunch at a Japanese restaurant with the Italian he knew as Mario, who had arranged to meet him because he said he had information about the murder of Ms Politkovskaya, a close friend.

''Why should this Italian do it? I know him. He is a solid, respectable man. And Sasha was already feeling unwell before the lunch. He was poisoned before he met the Italian.''

As to the background to the supposed poisoning, Gordievsky claimed that Litvinenko was 'poisoned on the direct orders of the Kremlin because of his biting mockery of President Putin'.

It will be noted that no evidence whatsoever was presented in support of the accusation against the `man who came to London', who soon turned out to be Lugovoi, or for the accusation against Putin:  nor did the Times journalist who conducted the interview ask for any.  What evidence Gordievsky had, it would seem, cannot have come from the police interview with Litvinenko, given that this apparently had not happened by the time the interview was conducted.

The meeting with Lugovoi and Kovtun in the Pine Bar at which polonium was, supposedly, poured into the teapot which later showed an `off the charts' reading for radiation was first made public by them.  It took place, Lugovoi explained, after the meeting at the Itsu, not before - and neither Litvinenko's associates nor the police  have ever disputed this.  So it would seem that whatever evidence was available to Gordievsky cannot have pointed to the meeting in the Pine Bar as the likely occasion of Litvinenko's poisoning - unless he had reasons to want deliberately to mislead people about what he actually thought had happened.

The suggestion that Litvinenko had incriminated Lugovoi actually begins in interviews, also given on 20 November, by Goldfarb to the Russian site Gazeta.ru  and the Associated Press.  At this point it was supposed that the toxin which killed Litvinenko had been identified as thallium.  But this is not the only difference between the AP version and what was later claimed in relation to the circumstances of Litvinenko's poisoning:

Alexander Goldfarb, who helped Mr. Litvinenko flee to Britain in 2000, said it is possible the thallium that sickened Mr. Litvinenko was sprinkled into his drink during a meeting at a central London hotel on Nov. 1 before he went to the restaurant.
Mr. Goldfarb said the former spy told him more details on Monday morning about the day he was poisoned during a telephone conversation from his hospital bed.
Mr. Litvinenko briefly met two men from Moscow - one of whom was a former KGB officer who he knew - for tea at the hotel, Mr. Goldfarb said
"I called Alexander in hospital ... he told me it is true, on that day, before meeting the Italian, he met with two Russians," Mr. Goldfarb said, adding Litvinenko had not previously met the second man.
Mr. Litvinenko told police about the two men, he said.

To this, the Gazeta.ru story adds the a name for the mysterious Russian, unknown to Litvinenko - Vladimir - as well as the interesting suggestion that Litvinenko 'wants to stress that he doesn't accuse anyone of his poisoning.'  Supposedly, when he talked to Goldfarb, Litvinenko had not even accused Putin or the FSB.

In the Telegraph the following day, Goldfarb developed his version.  It was suggested that through the 'encroaching nausea and pain, ' Litvinenko 'spoke of his suspicions' to his 'close friend' Goldfarb.  According to this version, he had described two meetings on 1 November, and there were 'no other events Mr Litvinenko could think of that might have caused his illness.'  At the second, at the Itsu, Scaramella had provided Litvinenko 'with details of a threat to both their lives':  a claim which had been conspicuous by its total absence in the early reports incriminating Scaramella, in which it had been suggested he had used information about the murder of Anna Politkovskaya to set a trap.  

It was however, according to the Telegraph, 'the first of his two meetings that is currently of more interest to Scotland Yard.'  This was the meeting with Lugovoi and the mysterious 'Vladimir'.  It was said that, 'although not suspects', the pair might have 'important information to give as witnesses.'  The meeting was said to have taken place 'at an unknown central London hotel in the morning of Nov 1', and 'Mr Goldfarb said that through the agony of his illness, Mr Litvinenko could not recall details of the meeting.'

What emerges from all this, I suggest, is that any attempt by counsel for Lugovoi to suggest that Litvinenko's incrimination of Scaramella in the early reports, including the BBC Russian Service interview, should be taken at face value should be met with scepticism.  But so also should the attempts by counsel for Litvinenko's widow to suggest that her husband's incrimination of Lugovoi should be taken at face value.

Litvinenko `censured'?

As to the claims by Mr Emmerson QC, it is certainly a matter of some moment that Litvinenko appears to have called Lugovoi, and not vice versa.  Let us however look at what was happening on 13 November.  On that day the Russian newspaper Kommersant picked up the story of Litvinenko's poisoning, with the finger of suspicion pointed squarely at Scaramella.  That evening, the Kavkaz Center, one of the sites on which the story of the poisoning had been broken, noted the contrast between the coverage in Russa and the lack of coverage in the West, heading its report with the claim that the supposed FSB attack had been `censured' - by which they clearly meant `censored' - both by the British police and the British media.  

According to the Kommersant report, Litvinenko said that `the London police opened the case and he would be interrogated in detail once he left the hospital', while, `probably for lack of details,' Scotland Yard had `proved unable to find any record about the crime relating to Litvinenko'.  It would be remarkable, in a serious poisoning case, if indeed the police did ignore the basic precept about the importance of getting evidence as early as possible.  

Claims about when the police became involved are indeed another mass of contradictions - with the AP report, for example, quoting police as saying that a `specialist crime unit' began an investigation on 17 November, the same day as Shvets contacted Karon von Gerhke, and more than a fortnight after Litvinenko is supposed to have developed acute symptoms.  If this is accurate, it would suggest that the police actually became involved both at a quite extraordinarily late date, and the coincidence that the date happened to coincide with the point at a key associate of Litvinenko `went public' with the story of his poisoning might be significant.

If indeed the conversation between Lugovoi and Litvinenko took place on 13 November and was initiated by the latter, it could be that it should be taken at face value; equally, however, it could be that it had some covert purpose, such as, for example, to get some impression of how Lugovoi had responded to the breaking of the story:  in which case, the impression it gave of what Litvinenko thought might be seriously misleading.  

As to the interview Litvinenko gave to the police, before looking at the problems with this, it is worth bringing into the picture further evidence from Karon von Gerhke.  Also on 21 November, at 2.38 pm EST - 8.38 pm in Britain - Shvets sent another e-mail to her, which is worth reproducing in full:

Subj: RE: Airborne. 
Date: 11/21/06 2:38:35 PM Eastern Standard Time
From: yshvets@adelphia.net
To: Karonsuevon@aol.com
Sent from the Internet (Details)

We still do not know where is Lugovoy and how he is. Besides, he did not have a meeting with L in a public place. It's possible that he is already dead.


It is difficult to think of a more `public' place than the bar of a major central London hotel in the late afternoon.  Accordingly, what we know is that, at the time when Litvinenko - supposedly - gave the interview to the police which is taken to be conclusive evidence against Lugovoi, close associates of his displayed no knowledge of the Pine Bar meeting where according to the conventional wisdom he was poisoned.  And indeed, both Shvets and Goldfarb explicitly ruled out the possibility that Litvinenko had been poisoned at a meeting having the characteristics we know the Pine Bar meeting to have had2.

Accordingly, in relation to what the interview that Litvinenko supposedly gave to the police on 20 November, a number of scenarios are possible.  Each of them raise as many problems as they solve:

  1.  Litvinenko did in fact give an interview in which he pointed the finger of suspicion at the meeting with Lugovoi and Kovtun in the Pine Bar.  In this case, it would be natural to presume that he provided the same information to his associates, and in particular to Goldfarb.  If this was the case, then the claim about the earlier meeting involving Lugovoi and `Vladimir' would have to be disinformation.  As noted in our previous diary, the scenario under which this would make sense would be if Litvinenko's associates wanted to suppress what had actually happened in the Pine Bar, and thought Lugovoi would also want to do this.  In this case, `Vladimir' could have been a simple fiction, to make it possible to divert suspicion from Scaramella, without accusing Lugovoi so directly that he might reveal too much.

  2.  Litvinenko did, as Goldfarb claimed to AP, describe the supposed earlier meeting involving Lugovoi and `Vladimir'.  It is worth noting that while Goldfarb and Marina Litvinenko in Death of the Dissident changed the story, and attempted to claim that the latter's husband had pointed to the Pine Bar, as was noted in the May 2008 diary, Gordievsky and another of Litvinenko's associates, Boris Volodarsky, stuck by the story of the earlier meeting.  In this case questions need to be answered by the CPS.  Were they happy to accept that Litvinenko had been deliberately poisoned by Lugovoi in the Pine Bar, while there was no evidence that he himself had suggested this, and there was evidence he had pointed to another meeting with different time, location and personnel?  If not, what did they believe had happened?

  3.  The supposed interview is actually so hopelessly vague as to be of little evidential value, except perhaps as a final conclusive demonstration that the statement accusing Putin that Goldfarb claimed that Litvinenko had made on 21 November, and which has been widely accepted as authentic, has to be a total fabrication.  Alternatively, it is itself a fabrication, either in whole or in part.  Even however if it is not a fabrication - and indeed, irrespective of what the interview says - it is an obvious possibility that Litvinenko was deliberately disseminating disinformation.  

So the significance of what appears to have been a single, isolated, interview given by Litvinenko to the police remains, as of this writing, deeply unclear.  It could be that what he said was factually accurate, but it could be that it was simply another frame-up - in which case that against Scaramella would not be, as we suggested in our previous diary, Litvinenko's `final frame-up.'  Equally however, we cannot totally discount the possibility that the interview is itself a fiction, created by others - or at least amended by them.

In our previous diary, we suggested grounds for thinking that the possibility that Litvinenko's death resulted from his own `incautious handling' of polonium - to use Lugovoi's phrase - at least merited serious investigation.  It will be apparent that nothing in what counsel for Marina Litvinenko had to say at last Thursday's hearing calls those grounds into question - and indeed, some of what he said reinforces them.  It is not so very easy to reconcile the multiple equivocations by him, his widow, and his associates over the circumstances of his poisoning with the contention that he had no contact with polonium until it was slipped into his teapot by Lugovoi and/or Kovtun in the Pine Bar.

What needs also to be added into the picture is Mr Emmerson's account of the background to the crucial conversation between Litvinenko and Lugovoi, and in particular the suggestion that the two were due to go to Spain to provide a Spanish prosecutor with `evidence' about links between Russian organised crime and Putin.  This adds to a growing body of circumstantial evidence suggesting that the kind of claims which have twice led to the conviction of Scaramella on aggravated calumny charges, which we discussed in our diary about his conviction in Rimini on 30 November, may have been treated rather less critically by MI6 than might have been appropriate.   But that issue, which is obviously critical in relation to the inquest, is the subject for another diary.

  1. The link to the transcript, which was available at the Litvinenko Justice Foundation, currently appears not to be functional.
  2. These e-mails from Karon von Gerhke, as well as a mass of other evidence about and from Shvets supplied by her, were in the possession of Catherine Belton when she recycled his disingenuous attempts to explain away Litvinenko's incrimination of Scaramella.

Thanks to both of you. This is going to be an epic inquest.

I came across a couple of phrases I didn't find clear, and suggest these edits:

Moreover, two of his most closest collaborators, Alex Goldfarb and Yuri Shvets, quite explicitly ruled out the possibility that he could have been poisoned at a meeting having the characteristics we know that at of the Pine Bar to have had tea-party.

The conclusion is that, while it does give any support for any of the other claims made about who might have poisoned Litvinenko:

"does not", surely?

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Wed Dec 19th, 2012 at 06:32:38 AM EST
Thanks very much for catching these two errors. I'll correct them asap. We do proof read our articles several times but fresher and distant eyes do better.

Our efforts will now turn to Italy with a bemused eye on the poor Spanish who've now been publicly drawn into the mess.

by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Wed Dec 19th, 2012 at 08:17:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Further corrections added. This should be the director's final cut.
by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Wed Dec 19th, 2012 at 10:45:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think this certainly is going to be an epic inquest.

At issue are going to be fundamental questions not only about the conduct of the Russian state and security services, but about the capacity and integrity of the British intelligence services, and also the British police.  Also at issue are fundamental questions about the ability of the `Fourth Estate' in Britain to subject claims made by the intelligence services, and the police, to critical examination.

In this regard, it is of interest to look back to a crucial excerpt from the request by Italian prosecutors to use wiretaps of conversations between the head of the `Mitrokhin Commission', Senator Paolo Guzzanti, and Scaramella, in connection with the first aggravated calumny case against the latter.  This excerpt, which David Loepp translated in response to my diary back in May 2008, has turned out to be particularly rich in significance:

3) - 4) - 5) - 6) - 7) - 8) - 9) conversations that took place on number [omissis] on December 1st, 2005, at 16:10:08 # 833, 16:43:40 # 848, 17:13:02 # 856, 17:56:45 # 860, 18:15:48 # 861, 19:56:22 # 867, 20:20:50 # 873, containing precise references to the campaign organized by Scaramella and Litvinenko to support the thesis of a conspiracy to assassinate Guzzanti, attributing the responsibility to TALIK and elements of the Russian mafia, the camorra and Russian and Ukrainian secret services, with the indication of relevant documents acquired by Scaramenlla and sent to Senator Guzzanti, or to be acquired and transmitted. The conversations are of particular relevance if confronted with intercepted conversations in the acts between Litvinenko and Ganchev on one part and between TALIK and his wife on the other, having as their object the same facts albeit their reconstruction appears quite different, as noted in the motivations behind the arrest warrant emitted against Scaramella (Scaramella calls Guzzanti and tells him that at least ten different press agencies in Ukraine have mentioned the assassination attempt against Guzzanti, including the declarations of Litvinenko as referred by him. Litvinenko received dozens of calls from Ukranian reporters and Litvinenko mentioned Talik's name. Guzzanti tells Scaramella that he received a letter in Russian from Litvinenko; Scaramella will send the translation which corresponds to the registration but omitting all references to Mario Scaramella. Guzzanti notes that there is a problem since in the letter Litvinenko asserts that he works for the Commission; Scaramella says that Litvinenko had in precedence undertaken activity concerning nuclear [?] in Italy that they [the commission] had acquired; at the London meeting, official missions, documents countersigned by Bukowsky, Gordievsky, Svorov and Palombo. Conversations intercepted between CUCHMA (he lost the elections against Yushenko) and MOGILEVICH/FSB. SHVEZ, ex-president of the KGB took the material [?] to the USA. Scaramella tells Guzzanti that in Ukraine there is an agency, "the fifth element," probably close to Berezovsky, that follows the work of a commission similar to the Mitrokhin Commission that investigates facts of Soviet Union espionage. This agency had interviewed Litvinenko, and Scaramella sent the article to Guzzanti. In the interview Litvinenko talks about the Ukrainian aspects and also mentions Guzzanti (indicated as Paolo Guzzante), Talik, etc. They study the article together even if it is in Russian or Ukrainian. A passage on Simon Moghilevic and an agreement between the camorra to search for nuclear weapons lost during the Cold War to be consigned to Bin Laden, a revelation made by the Israeli. According to Scaramella the circle closes: camorra, Moghilevic- Russian mafia- services- nuclear bombs in Naples.)

Several points have become clear:

  1.  The `London meeting' with documents `countersigned by Bukowsky, Gordievsky, Svorov and Palombo' is the meeting held at the offices of the IMO on 26 July 2004, which was discussed in the first of our current series of diaries.  This was largely devoted to a presentation by Scaramella designed to demonstrate that the so-called `sistema' composed for former KGB and GRU officers which supposedly controlled Russia uses organised crime to pursue covert agendas directly contradictory to the overt agendas of the Russian state.  This presentation was supported by twelve separate declaration from Litvinenko.  The claims made in the presentation and declarations were indeed largely endorsed by Vladimir Bukovsky, Oleg Gordievsky, Vladimir Rezun (aka `Viktor Suvorov') and Louis Palumbo.

  2.  A central thrust of these claims, and others made later by Scaramella and Litvinenko, was to demonstrate that the `sistema' was a major sponsor of jihadist terrorism, and supporter of `rogue states'.  The keystone of the arch were a variety of changes rung on the `nuclear weapons lost during the Cold War to be consigned to Bin Laden' scenario referred to at the end of the passage from the request by the Italian prosecutors David Loepp translated.  Also important here were attempts directly to link Putin to the notorious Ukrainian mobster Semyon Mogilevich, supposedly a key intermediary in the plot to equip Al Qaeda with nuclear or radiological weapons.

  3.  We already knew from a report from the U.S. Madrid Embassy from January 2010, disclosed by WikiLeaks in December 2010, that the Spanish prosecutor to whom Litvinenko had been feeding information swallowed the general theory of the `sistema' hook, line and sinker:  including the argument about its use to pursue covert agendas.  The comments by counsel for Marina Litvinenko at the 13 December hearing add to the body of circumstantial evidence suggesting that MI6 did also.  As noted in this diary, they suggest that at the time Litvinenko ingested polonium, he and Lugovoi were due to travel to Spain to provide the prosecutor with `evidence' about links between Putin and the mafia, and that are likely to have been doing so at the instigation of MI6.

  4.  Accordingly, a key question becomes how much of the disinformation which we know Litvinenko and Scaramella have developed on the supposed plot by the `sistema' to equip Al Qaeda with nukes was fed to MI6 - and how much they swallowed.

  5.  It is relevant here that in the list of sources for his disinformation operations given by Scaramella to Guzzanti in the above extract we find some of the people who have played a critical role in shaping the conventional wisdom in Britain about how Litvinenko died.  In addition to Gordievsky and Yuri Shvets, whose roles we discussed in this diary, Scaramella himself was presented as an independent and objective source in a BBC `Panorama' programme on 22 January 2007, and in the study The Litvinenko File published by the former BBC Moscow Correspondent Martin Sixsmith in April that year.  The claims by Shvets were recycled in the July 2007 study Londongrad by Mark Hollingsworth and Stewart Lansley.

  6.  It may be of moment here that both MI6 and Sir John Scarlett, at the time head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, gave their imprimatur to the claims about Saddam Hussein having sought uranium from Niger that played a large role in making possible the invasion of Iraq.  One of the more egregious intelligence failures in British history led to probably the catastrophic British foreign policy error since 1945.  The inquiry conducted by Lord Hutton exonerated Scarlett, clearing the way for him to take over as head of MI6.  In heaping the maximum possible amount of blame on the BBC, it had a profoundly demoralising effect on current affairs at the Corporation.
by djhabakkuk (david daught habakkuk at o two daught co daught uk) on Wed Dec 19th, 2012 at 09:33:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
At issue are going to be fundamental questions not only about the conduct of the Russian state and security services, but about the capacity and integrity of the British intelligence services, and also the British police.  Also at issue are fundamental questions about the ability of the `Fourth Estate' in Britain to subject claims made by the intelligence services, and the police, to critical examination.

Well - if that's the issue you can probably stop right there.

I know of no evidence suggesting that the various elements of the British establishment are anything other than systemically corrupt.

To date we've had Iraq, Hillsborough, Leveson, phone hacking and the subsequent arrests, the bizarre fall-out from the Jimmy Savile investigation, and a number of other stories I can't be bothered to list - all suggesting that corruption and dishonesty are the default.

So when it comes to the official British account, I wouldn't waste time on it.

Unfortunately that leaves very little to go on in the rest of this case.  

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Wed Dec 19th, 2012 at 11:11:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The `British Establishment' is not monolithic.

In relation to Iraq, comments by John Kampfner, discussing the attempts of Brown and Mandelson to have the Chilcot Inquiry held in private, and in particular the vitriolic opposition from senior military figures, are to the point:

Brown and Mandelson should have anticipated the concern of the military top brass. Many of these figures have long been furious about the government's approach to Iraq. I saw this for myself, in microcosm, in the autumn of 2003. I was visiting an officers' college, as part of my book promotional tour. I decided to tone down my standard introductory remarks in order not to come across as offensive and unpatriotic. I completely misread my audience. They were vituperative, under the cloak of `Chatham House rules', about Blair's massaging of the intelligence, about the lack of military preparedness, the lack of planning for the occupation, amid a general sense that soldiers were being sent to die for party political gain. That is the message Blair has been desperate to avoid being aired in public.

The legacy of doubt left by the Iraq War about the competence and integrity of MI6 and Sir John Scarlett may be relevant to the inquest.

That said, I admit I was initially made suspicious by apparent belief of Lord Macdonald, who headed the Crown Prosecution Service when the extradition of Lugovoi was requested, that the Hutton Inquiry was an appropriate model for the kind of broad inquest he advocated.  So far at least, however, nothing whatsoever in the conduct of the inquest by the High Court judge appointed to run it, Sir Robert Owen, and his team - in particular the Counsel to the inquest, Hugh Davies - has given any reason to suspect that they take their professed commitment to a `full and fearless' inquest with anything less than complete seriousness.  

Moreover, particularly as the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, together with Lugovoi, are going to have `interested person' status, both Litvinenko's associates, and British officials, are going to have much more difficulty getting away with the kind of easy propaganda they have been accustomed to produce.

My more fundamental concern remains that the actual truth about the intrigues which led to Litvinenko's ingestion of polonium is so profoundly embarrassing to many both in Britain and in Russia that they may have a disguised common interest in obscuring key parts of the history.  If it turns out that the heavyweight QCs representing various parties are, in their different ways, simply engaged to continue in more sophisticated form the propaganda wars that have gone on around this affair, then the difficulties facing Counsel to the inquest in elucidating the truth may be formidable.

by djhabakkuk (david daught habakkuk at o two daught co daught uk) on Wed Dec 19th, 2012 at 12:15:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I hope Owen is indeed fearless. I saw two reasons to fear a stitch-up:
  • the fact that a high-court judge, rather than a pathologist or whatever, is heading the inquest (perhaps this is standard, given the legal complexities, but it opens a doubt as to whether he was selected as a "safe pair of hands")
  • his disinclination to accept a jury, despite clear public health and safety grounds.

But his refusal to rule out any scenario (despite special pleading from Berezhovsky and the Met) is encouraging.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II
by eurogreen on Thu Dec 20th, 2012 at 03:46:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I would not attach any great significance to the question of the jury.  Nobody -- including Lugovoi's lawyers -- expressed a wish for it.

I think a High Court judge is the appropriate choice.  As to the forensics, in the long interview he gave to Russia Today, broadcast a year ago today, Lugovoi made clear that the Russian investigators had been looking very closely at the scientific aspects.  As his counsel noted at the 13 December hearing, the fact that the relevant evidence is being supplied to the `interested persons' right at the end of the disclosure process may cause problems.  

But - particularly as the Russian investigators are now going to be an `interested person' - I do not think it likely that the inquest can be rushed in a manner that would deny them the opportunity to have British claims carefully analysed by their own scientists and pathologists.  Of course, precisely the fact that this evidence is being made available so late on must inevitably increase the likelihood that questions about its integrity are going to raise their head:  given the need for analysis, one might have expected that it would be disclosed much earlier.  But for precisely that reason, it would seem more likely that if its implications are heavily contested, as seems likely, the outcome will be further delays in the substantive hearings, rather than an attempt to rush the Russian side.

The upshot however is that a judge with extensive criminal experience, used to dealing with forensic evidence, fits the bill much better than a pathologist.  Meanwhile, some critical aspects of this investigation, I suspect, are going to involve the battles between the Russian security services and the Yukos oligarchs - which was certainly part of the background to Litvinenko's activities both in Britain and Spain.  There are, I think, a lot of knotty financial issues involved. Meanwhile, the complex business relations of Berezovsky and Patarkatsishvili - which Lugovoi put at the heart of the affair - will also need analysis:  and these also involve knotty financial issues.  Accordingly, it seems appropriate that whoever conducts the business has more experience of civil litigation than a coroner could normally be expected to have.  In terms of his experience, Sir Robert Owen would seem to fit the bill very well.

That said, alarm bells were certainly raised by the fact that in the same interview where he called for a senior judge to be appointed, the former CPS head Lord Macdonald both expressed his belief in the 'state directed execution' theory, and also seemed to regard the Hutton Inquiry as a model.

However, with Lord Hutton there appears to have been reason to suspect that he had been deliberately selected, it has commonly suggested at the initiative of Peter Mandelson, because as a Northern Ireland judge he could be expected to be particularly sympathetic to the security services.  I have seen no parallel suggestion about Sir Robert Owen.

Moreover, ironically, the very successful propaganda operation which has been waged by Litvinenko's associates, and also elements in British intelligence, may turn out to have been double-edged in its effects.  It is generally taken for granted in Britain both that the CPS request for Lugovoi's extradition is backed by compelling evidence, and that his refusal to surrender himself, and the refusal of the British authorities to extradite him, are prima facie evidence of guilt.

It is only when one starts looking at the publicly available evidence that it becomes clear that, if a compelling case was submitted to the CPS, it was not reflected in the tissue of unsubstantiated, contradictory and otherwise problematic claims produced in the public domain.  It is clear that reading the evidence which is not in the public domain, Sir Robert has responded by deciding that it is appropriate, at this stage at least, to keep things as open as possible.

In the end, in an inquiry like this, it is the acuteness and integrity of the figure conducting it which are decisive.  Even people's political views are of secondary relevance.  And having attended the three pre-inquest reviews he has conducted, all I can say is that so far at least Sir Robert's conduct of proceedings has been exemplary.

by djhabakkuk (david daught habakkuk at o two daught co daught uk) on Thu Dec 20th, 2012 at 07:53:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
OK jolly good...

Nobody -- including Lugovoi's lawyers -- expressed a wish for it.

I can see why Lugovoi wouldn't want a British jury -- the James Bond stereotypes might take a bit of breaking. That doesn't mean it wouldn't be in the public interest, though. As you say repeatedly, most of the interested parties can be presumed to share an interest in keeping certain things out of the public eye, and a jury arguably makes it harder to sweep things under the carpet.

What's the next step now? Nothing happens till the actual inquest starts, or will there be newsflow in the interim?

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Thu Dec 20th, 2012 at 10:08:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A good question.

I suppose what happens now depends partly upon whether various 'interested persons' see it as being in their interest to anticipate the inquest by putting elements of the case they want to make into the public domain.

They are inhibited by having signed a non-disclosure agreement, which means that they cannot reveal the contents of the materials which are disclosed to them by the British Government.

From Lugovoi's point of view, the natural strategy may well be to wait until the British side has shown its hand before deciding how to play his.  Obviously, the inquest team will be seeking clarifications from him.  

But how far they are in a position to anticipate the kind of process of questioning which will go on in the actual inquest, and try to pin him -- or others -- down on questions of fact at this stage is not clear to me.

Another thing which might change matters would be someone in the MSM decided to attempt to do some serious journalism.  But given that so far most British journalists have simply recycled 'talking points' from the anonymous security sources, figures in the investigation, or associates of Litvinenko,

I would not rate the chances of this happening very highly, in that once people have swallowed disinformation, and made complete assess of themselves by doing so, they are generally profoundly reluctant to admit the fact.

An honourable exception to the generally lamentable standard of British reporting on the Litvinenko mystery, incidentally, is a good article by Mary Dejevsky in the Independent back in May 2008.

by djhabakkuk (david daught habakkuk at o two daught co daught uk) on Thu Dec 20th, 2012 at 11:21:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The "properly interested parties" have a bunch of information that we don't have. Does a slam-dunk case emerge from this info? That seems unlikely.

The profile of Marina in that Independent article is fascinating. Quite likely, she doesn't know the truth about her late husband's doings. Is she seeking after truth in the inquest, or seeking to protect her husband's good name?

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Thu Dec 20th, 2012 at 12:12:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
If you look at what Ben Emmerson QC , counsel for Marina Litvinenko, said at the 13 December hearing, it will be evident that it is far from clear that her claims to have been 'out of the loop' on her husband's doings should be accepted.

Associates of Litvinenko -- notably Alex Goldfarb -- have milked the image of the tragic widow, vainly seeking justice, for all it is worth.

Enough has already emerged to establish that the prevalent image of Litvinenko in Britain and the United States has little connection with reality.  We are not yet in a position to gauge quite how much, or how little, relationship the prevalent image of Marina Litvinenko has with reality.

by djhabakkuk (david daught habakkuk at o two daught co daught uk) on Thu Dec 20th, 2012 at 01:01:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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