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By John Helmer, Moscow

The British Government revealed this week it is paying Lord Anthony Hughes (lead image), a retired judge, £900.83 per month to conduct a public inquiry into the Government’s Novichok allegations against Russia.

Following two preliminary hearings in March  and July,  Hughes has ruled that none of the state evidence for the allegations will be tested in public without passing through a closed-door declassification process lasting until next year,  and may be kept secret even then. Direct  witnesses, including Sergei and Yulia Skripal, are to be subject to “special security arrangements” and may not be permitted to testify freely in open hearing. And in Hughes’s latest order, the “livestream” broadcast of the hearing scheduled for November 11, has been delayed for five minutes before the press can hear it.

This new measure was introduced to allow government censors to stop the embarrassing disclosures which slipped out at the last hearing on July 15. The first of these came from the lawyer representing the family of Dawn Sturgess, whose death in July 2018 was allegedly caused by Novichok poisoning: the lawyer, Michael Mansfield KC,  said the government’s evidence against the Russians may be “an empty barrel”. He was followed by the lawyer speaking for the Home Office, the British police and security ministry, who claimed her evidence of the Russian threat came from “the Danish investigation of the MH17 attack.”  

At the opening of today’s hearing, Hughes said the broadcast delay has been introduced to “guard against the accidental mention of sensitive material”. “Should an accident happen”, he  added,  “the risk can’t be taken.” A Home Office lawyer followed Hughes, declaring in court that the broadcast delay and the years of delay in reviewing evidence documents are justified to protect the national security. “There has been no delay in the sense of needlessly wasted time,” Cathryn McGahey KC claimed.

Hughes was also asked to confirm that his government contract for running the public inquiry includes a monthly payment of 83 pence. According to his spokesman, “the Chair is remunerated on a standard scale that applies to all retired judges.”

Hughes’s running orders from the government require him to “conduct an investigation into the death of Dawn Sturgess in order to: Ascertain, in accordance with section 5(1) of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 who the deceased was; how; when and where she came by her death; and the particulars (if any) required by the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953 to be registered concerning the death; Identify, so far as consistent with section 2 of the Inquiries Act 2005, where responsibility for the death lies; and Make such recommendations as may seem appropriate.”  

The official website for the Hughes Inquiry, including published documents and transcripts of the hearings to date, can be followed here.

Source: https://www.dawnsturgess.independent-inquiry.uk/

The reason Hughes is running an inquiry, not an inquest, is explained on the website. “The Inquiry has been set up to take the place of the Inquest, (conducted by the Coroner, Rt Hon Baroness Hallett DBE), in order to allow all relevant evidence to be heard.”  

This is misleading.  Under British coronial law, all evidence must be tested in open court and witnesses cross-examined in public. In the Novichok cases alleged against the Skripals and Sturgess, the police, Defence Ministry, MI6, and witness evidence remains top secret; the government has not wanted to allow it to be presented in public. Keeping it secret, with the appearance of “allow[ing] all relevant evidence to be heard”, is the purpose for Hughes to run his proceeding.

This replacement of an inquest with an inquiry signals a profound change in the legal principles:  the admissibility of evidence, the standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt, the presumption of innocence, the right of the accused to defence, and verdict by jury do not apply in a public inquiry. For analysis of the legal and political implications of this difference between inquest and inquiry, read this.  

Hughes acknowledged the Home Secretary has acted preemptively, issuing on July 27 a notice to keep top secret “scheduled material” – a list of documents and records which the government requires the judge to restrict in circulation. That the government would attempt to restrict the judge was “exceptional”, Hughes and his counsel, Andrew O’Connor KC, acknowledged in court.  According to O’Connor, “it is an exceptional measure. In most – some would say all – cases it ought to be you [Hughes] and not the Secretary of State who takes the decision – we would submit, a judicial decision – as to what evidence can be adduced in OPEN proceedings, and what material must remain in CLOSED.”

O’Connor then revealed an agreement with government officials that Hughes will be shown a draft of the government’s top secret “schedule”, and invited to decide in secret himself whether  to keep the state secrecy as he has been told to do by the Home Secretary.

Referring to statements between March and September of 2018 by then-foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and then-Prime Minister Theresa May  accusing Russia of planning the Novichok assassination campaign in the UK, Hughes said in court on Friday: “politicians have made assertions, not evidence. Part of my job is to decide whether they are right.”

For the appearance that the Skripals,  who were last heard by family members in 2019 and 2020,   are now represented and may give evidence, Hughes has appointed a London lawyer by the name of Adam Chapman.  However, Chapman refuses to say if he has met with the Skripals or has confirmed they are alive and not in prison. He was present in the hearing of July 15, but refused to say anything for the Skripals.

He appeared again in court on November 11. When Hughes asked for comments, Chapman remained silent. “You’d have leapt to your feet if you needed to,” Hughes told him.

Follow Chapman’s involvement in the Novichok case here.  

Left: read the only published book to test the evidence in the Novichok case;  right, Adam Chapman.  

The Friday court session was told by the police that a total of 55,000 items of evidence will be submitted for further secrecy review by the end of this year, and additional documents are to be added for review by Hughes and his staff by the end of next February. According to Hughes, the total may come to 60,000.

The next preliminary hearing to review the secrecy process is likely, according to Hughes, in late March 2023. Mansfield, the advocate of the Sturgess family, told Hughes that the first public hearing of evidence and witnesses is unlikely to commence for another year.

“Everything must be open unless there is a reason for it not to be,” Hughes declared.

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