Tomorrow, July 31, is a great moment in the history of British jurisprudence. Let me explain. If you believe, as do I, that our civilization is spiralling downward, you may agree that – here as in Britain or anywhere else in the West – courts of law are no different in this regard than apples and tomatoes, socks and shoes, books and music. And so, by my reckoning, a great event in history is any occurrence that bucks the trend, as when you find a cigar worth smoking, a novel worth reading, or a legal judgment that’s fair.
Tomorrow, Sir Robert Owen, a judge of the High Court of England and Wales appointed last August as Her Majesty’s Assistant Deputy Coroner for Inner North London, opens the hearings in a public inquiry into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, who died on November 23, 2006 at University College Hospital in London after drinking tea laced with a radioactive isotope of polonium. An inquest into Litvinenko’s death was duly opened a week later, on November 30, 2006, but the general outcry for a public inquiry – no foreigner had been killed in so flagrant a manner on British soil since the assassination, with an umbrella tip filled with ricin, of the Bulgarian defector Georgi Markov in 1978 – was subsequently quashed by the government.
Last year, Home Secretary Teresa May admitted, according to Reuters, that in blocking the inquiry “she had taken into account the interests of Anglo-Russian relations,” meaning, transparently, the rich oil deals that were then being signed between British Petroleum and its Russian partners. Whereupon Marina Litvinenko, widow of the victim, took the British government to court, pleading that the inquiry ban be overturned by judicial decision.
In Britain as in the United States, it is easy to sue a government if you’ve got AIDS, or acute T-bone steak phobia, or six kids from six different blokes and none of them your husband. Try taking on a government when you are an ordinary middle-class woman whose late husband angered the powers that be in the East without having ingratiated himself with the powers that be in the West. This is why I have said on numerous occasions last year, while the woman in question was trying to raise money from the public for her litigation fund, that Marina Litvinenko is the modern equivalent of Joan of Arc. And then, unlike St. Joan, she went ahead and won.
I suspect some of you will think: “Big deal! Of course she’s won. With all the trouble in the Ukraine, with that airliner in pieces among the dandelions, with Washington and Westminster out to do Putin down, what better way for the establishment to get at Russia than by washing the Litvinenko laundry in public?” Indeed, in his formal submission to the High Court as coroner, Sir Robert Owen wrote that the evidence being kept secret by the government did “establish a prima facie case as to the culpability of the Russian state in the death of Alexander Litvinenko.”
I will be disappointed if some of you think this, however, because it was back in February that Marina Litvinenko won her case against the British government in the High Court. Tomorrow merely sees the launch of the public inquiry, expected to be completed by the end of 2015.
A victory for justice, then, pure and simple. And as rare as a good novel, or a tomato that doesn’t taste like Styrofoam pellets.