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By John Helmer, Moscow 

The Novichok case, which began in Salisbury, Wiltshire, on March 4, 2018, is so open and shut that no judge, neither a provincial solicitor turned county coroner like David Ridley, nor an ennobled judge of the Court of Appeal like Baroness Heather Hallett (lead image, left), can have a moment’s hesitation in deciding the Russians are guilty. Because of his hesitation and uncertainty, however, Ridley was replaced by Hallett in January. After her first hearing on March 30, Hallett issued her first ruling on April 8. It was released publicly yesterday.

Alternatively, the Novichok case is so uncertain on the evidence, so contradictory in the witness claims, and so risky to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s (right) policy towards Russia, that the case should be closed to public scrutiny, to cross-examination in court, and to other forensic testing.  

In the paper Hallett has just issued she allows the fabrication to run safely away, but bolts  the door on the risk of the truth escaping. Her inquest, she has ruled, is to run for just long enough to convict the Russian military and government of nerve-agent assassination; and then to convert the coroner’s court into a public inquiry, so that the only state secrets which will be allowed in evidence will be those selected by the state – but not enough to convict the British Government of negligence towards the victims, to whom the government may be liable to pay millions of pounds in compensation.  

In a brief acknowledgement of her open-door policy, Hallett announced: “In denying Russian state involvement in the poisonings, the Russian authorities have required answers from the UK government on what it considers important questions.” This is Hallett’s only acknowledgement of the archive of public reporting of contrary evidence in the Novichok case. That not one of the important “Russian” questions has been answered by the UK, Hallett has omitted to reveal.

Hallett’s ruling leaves no question of Russian and Novichok fact open. She has closed her investigation, as she was advised to do by the solicitor to the inquest, by the government’s lawyers, and also by the lawyers for Dawn Sturgess, whose death is the subject of the inquest. Sturgess is the only fatality ever recorded in the entire history of Novichok.

Read Hallett’s ruling here;  and her case management directions here.  For the lawyers’ presentations in court on March 30, the judge’s remarks, and the evidence presented, click to read. For the archive of contrary evidence, read the book.  

Source: https://drive.google.com/

In the accompanying directions for the future hearings – the next will be held in June or July —  Hallett has decided to expand the scope of her inquiry beyond the limits set by Ridley.

Left to right: Senior Coroner David Ridley; Dawn Sturgess; Colonel Sergei Skripal (retired).

This too Hallett was advised by the government lawyers to do. Since no one has advised the judge to call Sergei and Yulia Skripal to testify, Hallett’s directions require an investigation  — without the Skripals. Naming the “interested persons” required for the inquest under the Coroners and Justice Act of 2009, Hallett has refused to call the obvious “person who may by any act or omission have caused or contributed to the death of the deceased” or “any other person who thinks the senior coroner thinks has a sufficient interest”.

Source: https://drive.google.com/

Hallett does think about Sergei Skripal, she acknowledges. “I should also add that my provisional view is that an investigation into possible Russian state responsibility must inevitably involve some (albeit limited) investigation into Mr Skripal’s relationship with the Russian state and the circumstances of his leaving Russia.” For her “investigation” into that, Hallett says she will call several policemen to testify as “interested persons”; along with ambulance crews;  Wiltshire county councilors;  and state officials representing the security and intelligence services, the Defence Ministry, and the chemical warfare laboratory at Porton Down.

She also endorses one of the witnesses she has already judged to be “factual” – Sir Mark Sedwill, who ran the Novichok operation from the Cabinet Office in London and whose letter to NATO she quotes with approval. “A letter from the then National Security Adviser Sir Mark Sedwill to the NATO Secretary General stated that Russian military intelligence (the ‘GRU’) had targeted Yulia Skripal’s email accounts at least as far back as 2013 and, during the 2000s, had tested methods for depositing nerve agents on door handles.”

Sedwill’s testimony, but not Sergei or Yulia Skripal’s —  how is this possible unless this proceeding is a secret service stitch-up? For corroboration, Hallett proposes the Bellingcat unit.   “The investigative agency Bellingcat has made further claims; in particular it has reported that the names of the two individuals Petrov and Boshirov are in fact GRU military intelligence officers Anatoliy Chepiga and Dr Alexander Mishkin, and that a third member of the GRU (whom Bellingcat has named as Denis Sergeev, operating under the cover identity of Sergey Fedotov) travelled to London during the time of the Salisbury poisoning and may have been involved.”

Among the facts of the case which Hallett announces in this month’s ruling, two have been  worded in such a careful way they appear not to be bolted quite closed.

For example, the judge says the alleged source of Sturgess’s poisoning at home on June 30, 2018, was “what [Charles Rowley] thought was a perfume bottle”. She goes on: “Subsequent testing established that the bottle in fact contained Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent.” This is far from certain evidence of the bottle, or of its contents, or of the chain of custody for the purported evidence between March 4, June 30,  and whenever Hallett means by “subsequent” testing.

Hallett has also announced: “Ms Sturgess was pronounced dead on 8 July 2018.” This isn’t evidence of when she died, but only when doctors and other officials at Salisbury District Hospital declared her to be dead. Hallett goes on to say: “The post mortem indicated the cause of her death was Novichok poisoning.” This is forensically, legally vague on two points which appeared for the first time during the March 30 hearing. The disclosures were in a February 28 presentation by Andrew O’Connor QC, the lawyer representing the inquest and advising Hallett.  

Source: https://drive.google.com/file/
 For O’Connor’s background as a secret service lawyer, read this. Rutty, whose award of the MBE in 2010, was for “services to the Police”,  has practiced, taught and recommended a variety of new technologies for post-mortem investigations which open up a much wider range of medical evidence for Sturgess than has been revealed to date. Lumb has a public profile as a Home Office pathologist.

British forensic toxicologists remark that the wording of the “Ia/Ib” does not establish the causal link which Hallett is now claiming. “This phraseology is very unusual,” comments one source. “They [Rutty and Lumb] seem to have quite deliberately separated the two ‘events’. Far more common to have the words ‘brought about by’ or ‘as a result of’ replacing the 1b term. The implication is that the doctors are separating the events for a reason.”

Hallett’s ruling closes the door on that reason. She also appears intent on not investigating why the post-mortem conducted at the hospital on July 18 by Professor Rutty and Dr Lumb did not result in a report they signed that day or soon after; why their report was delayed for more than five months before the peculiar wording was agreed to by the doctors; and whether Lumb’s post-mortem preceded Rutty’s report, the two having been undertaken at different times and with different results.  

Hallett has also acknowledged that for her finding of a Russian Novichok poisoning as the cause of Sturgess’s death, she relies on “contemporaneous press reporting.”

Source: https://drive.google.com/

Hallett does not mean she has undertaken a comprehensive survey of all the press reporting at the time; nor has she or the lawyers and investigators now working for her examined the contradictions of the press reporting, or the reporting by The Blogmire and other press and open-source reporting, including English and Russian media. In English law, coroners have considerable discretion in their search for evidence, but they don’t have lawful authority to ignore evidence or cherry-pick what they read.  

Policemen, lawyers and judges investigating a suspicious death and evidence of a crime are obliged by the laws of evidence and the rules of admissibility to understand the idea of sequence of cause and effect and chains of causation.  Hallett admits as much. “The post mortem evidence indicated that she died in Salisbury on 8 July 2018 and from Novichok poisoning. But the family already knows [sic] those facts [sic]. What concerns the family and the wider British public, is by what means did the Novichok, a deadly nerve agent not commonly found on the streets of Wiltshire, come to be there, putting hundreds of lives at risk? For present purposes [sic] I assume [sic] that the nerve agent was taken to [sic] Salisbury to kill Mr Skripal. Had it not been taken and left there, abandoned [sic] by the attacker/s, Mr Rowley would not have picked it up [sic] and given it to Ms Sturgess. Ms Sturgess would not have died from it [sic]. There is therefore a potential direct causal link between the Novichok being taken to Salisbury for use in the attack on the Skripals and the death of Ms Sturgess. The facts that Ms Sturgess was not the target of the attack and that the abandoned [sic] bottle containing Novichok was found [sic] by Mr Rowley and taken home to Ms Sturgess some time [sic] later do not appear to me to break the chain of causation.” The sic marks every point of evidence which remains to be proved but which Hallett has already decided.

If Hallett acknowledges this “chain of causation”, and declares she will call Charles Rowley as an “interested person” to substantiate it, how can she ignore the chain of custody requiring proof that what caused Skripal’s medical collapse, along with Yulia Skripal’s, was the same weapon as appeared earlier in the day at his front-door;  then in the afternoon of his medical collapse;  then “some time later” seven miles away in Amesbury;  and then finally on Rowley’s kitchen table where the police did not discover it until several days after Sturgess had died?

Hallett’s answer is that she can, she does, and she will ignore. In the meantime, the cost of her doing so will be transferred from Wiltshire County Council to Whitehall. “The ‘Salisbury poisonings’ are a matter of national concern; in my view, given the exceptional nature of this case, be it inquest or inquiry, the burden of the costs should be falling on central government not on Wiltshire Council.”

Hallett has also warned that as soon as the secret services tell her their evidence is too secret to expose to public scrutiny, she will close the inquest, and replace it with a public inquiry. “I think it is highly likely that I too will reach the stage when I must invite the establishment of a public inquiry but as yet I have a limited knowledge of the nature and extent of the material. I shall therefore reserve my decision until the Inquest Legal Team and I have a better understanding of the material to be disclosed. But, as I made clear during the hearing, I am determined that this investigation should not be hampered by the kind of delay (and unnecessary additional cost) experienced by others.”

The secret reports Hallett has ordered to her desk “by 20th April 2021, with liberty to apply if further time is required.”

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