Ministers ridiculed at Salisbury Novichok poisonings inquiry after refusing to admit that Russian spy Sergei Skripal was an MI6 agent
- Mr Skripal himself helped write a book about his double life as an MI6 operative
- But ministers have been ridiculed for ‘neither confirming or denying’ MI6 links
Ministers were ridiculed at an inquiry into the Salisbury Novichok poisonings yesterday for refusing to admit one of the victims, Russian spy Sergei Skripal, was a British agent.
More than five years after the Kremlin targeted him at his home, and despite Mr Skripal himself helping write a book about his double life as an MI6 operative, the inquiry was told the Government could not confirm or deny his situation.
At the same time, at yesterday’s hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice to decide how much the public can be told about the case, a senior lawyer for the Government pledged to uphold ‘the enormous importance of open justice’.
Barrister Michael Mansfield KC told the court: ‘This “neither confirm nor deny” [policy] is almost Alice in Wonderland – the Government standing there and denying that which is obvious.’
Inquiry chairman Lord Hughes of Ombersley was told that Mr Skripal had helped write a book about his undercover exploits as an MI6 agent and it was obvious he was a British asset, yet the Government still refused to admit or deny he was a double agent.
Pictured, Sergei Skripal who was a former Russian agent who helped write a book about his double life as an MI6 agent
Lord Hughes warned it was inevitable there would be ‘perhaps quite a lot’ of material kept secret from the public when his inquiry eventually starts.
He told yesterday’s preliminary hearing that, although the starting point will be for everything to be heard in an open hearing, issues of national security and police workings will have to be heard in private.
Cathryn McGahey KC, for the Government and security services, said: ‘The Government does not dispute for one moment the enormous importance of open justice.’
But referring to Mr Skripal, she said as a matter of policy ministers never confirmed or denied if someone was an agent, saying: ‘Confirming if a person is an agent may put that person at risk, confirming they are not may put someone else at risk – and that risk could be a risk of death.
‘Potential agents will not work for His Majesty’s Government if they think one day their identities may be revealed at a court, and if they won’t work for us, then vital intelligence that keeps our country safe may be lost.’
Jude Bunting KC, for media groups including the Mail, the Telegraph, the BBC and Sky News, urged the chairman to keep as much material as possible in the open to ‘protect public confidence, prevent the appearance of a cover-up and assist in the quality of evidence.’
Lord Hughes, a former Supreme Court judge, said: ‘Given what is alleged to have happened, there’s inevitably going to be some material, perhaps quite a lot, that falls into the “closed” category.’
Mr Mansfield, representing the family of Dawn Sturgess, an innocent victim of the 2018 poisonings, questioned if enough had been done to safeguard the people of Salisbury given Mr Skripal who was ‘undoubtedly a Russian spy and who lived in Salisbury under his own name’ had been moved there after a prisoner swap with the Kremlin.
Pictured, the aftermath of the Salisbury poisoning in which Sergei and his daughter were attacked in a Kremlin-sanctioned hit
‘Has somebody done a risk assessment? I think the public need to know what the safety element of all this is. How much safeguarding was being done in advance?’ asked the KC.
The Dawn Sturgess Inquiry is examining the truth of the audacious attack, to establish the extent of Russian state involvement in the death of the 44-year-old mother-of-three, who died after spraying herself with the nerve agent contained within a discarded perfume bottle.
Russian spies had sprayed deadly Novichok on the door handle of the home in Salisbury where ex-spy Mr Skripal had been housed with his daughter Yulia. They both narrowly survived the attack, but Ms Sturgess died in hospital three months later after her boyfriend found the perfume bottle used by the agents to hide the poison.
Russian military intelligence officers Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov were later identified as the poisoners, and were branded ‘dumb Bond’ spies who became a global laughing stock when they went on Russian state TV to insist they were merely history-buff tourists who visited Salisbury to see the city’s ‘famous 123-metre’ cathedral spire.
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