Bumped off: the bizarre world of state-sponsored assassination

There is nothing new about high-profile assassinations, the likes of Martin Luther King, Gandi, Yitzhak Rabin, Benazir Bhutto etc., were all deemed to be a threat to the status quo in some respect or another and were subsequently murdered. In more recent times, suspected assassinations have become a little more sophisticated and increasingly peculiar.

Williams discovered a Russian mole hiding in GCHQ and was killed ‘by an untraceable poison introduced in his ear’ 

In 2012, the coroner charged with presiding over the disturbing case of Gareth Williams, also known as ‘The Spy in the Bag’, ruled a narrative verdict saying his death was ‘likely to have been criminally mediated’. Intriguingly, Scotland Yard claimed that it was a sex game that’d gone wrong without adequately explaining how Williams had managed to climb unaided inside a sports holdall before half-suggesting someone else had zipped it up, padlocked it shut and left him to it. No fingerprints or traces of Williams’ DNA was found on the bath, bag, zip or padlock, and there was no evidence he’d struggled to escape. Williams’ naked, partially decomposed body was found in the foetal position inside the bag, in his bath at his home in Pimlico, eight days after been seen alive.

At this stage it may well be worth noting that mathematics genius Williams worked for MI6 as a codebreaker, which may put a slightly different spin on things, particularly after a former KGB agent, Boris Karpichkov, claimed that Williams discovered a Russian mole hiding in GCHQ and was killed ‘by an untraceable poison introduced in his ear’ before being stuffed in the bag and left for dead.

The poisoning of ex-Russian spy, Serge Skripal and his daughter Yulia, generated a huge amount of media attention in 2018. It was alleged that two Russian assassins, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, deposited a lethal nerve agent, Novichoka, on an internal door handle of Serge Skripal’s home via a contaminated bottle of perfume. 

In early March 2018, shortly after being exposed to the poison, Serge and Yulia were found slumped on a bench in Salisbury, a picturesque city located in the south of England, and rushed to hospital in a critical condition. DS Nick Bailey was also contaminated while investigating the Skripals’ home and, almost four months later a mother-of-three, Dawn Sturgess and her partner Charlie Rowley, fell ill after Rowley discovered a bottle of ‘Nina Ricci perfume’ in a charity shop bin. Bailey and Rowley went on to make ‘full’ recoveries but Sturgess, the recipient of the gifted bottle of perfume, died after spraying Novichoka on her wrists. Apart from a scripted appearance on TV by Yulia in May 2018, neither the Skripals’ or the suspects have been seen or heard of since.

Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy, had moved to the UK in 2000 after accusing the Russian authorities of attempting to assassinate his patron and friend, Boris Berezovsky for criticising the government. Berezovsky, who arrived in the UK around the same time as Litvinenko, was found hanged in suspicious circumstances in his Berkshire home in 2013, the coroner recorded an open verdict on his death. Litvinenko published two books that continued to criticise his former government but on November 2006, after taking tea at Pine Bar at the Millennium Hotel in Mayfair with a former colleague and his associate, Litvinenko suddenly fell ill and was rushed to University College Hospital in London.

In the subsequent three weeks, he would identify his alleged assassins, Andrey Lugovoy and Dmitri Kovtun, claiming they’d spiked his tea at the Pine Bar with a radioactive substance, later identified as polonium-210. Within three weeks Litvinenko was dead from acute radiation poisoning. 

Interestingly, Dmitri Kovtun’s name briefly crops up in the very strange case of Alexander Perepilichnyy, a Russian businessman who lived in the UK, found dying close to his £5 million home on St Georges’ Hill in Surrey in November 2010. In addition to running a lucrative farming business, Perepilichnyy was trying to expose a money-laundering scheme in Russia with connections to big businesses, in addition to being involved in a legal dispute with a company run by Kovtun. On the day he died, he’d just enjoyed a bowl of his wife’s Sorrel Soup after having just returned home from an unfortunate trip to Paris with his mistress where he suffered a bout of, what was assumed to be, seafood poisoning the previous evening. 

Post-mortem, experts at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew claimed to have found traces of a plant toxin known as ‘heartbreak glass’ before withdrawing the claim, and as there was no evidence of foul play the contents of Perepilichnyy stomach were controversially discarded. Two post mortem examinations failed to find a cause of death which was unsatisfactorily concluded as ‘unascertained. The police, too, admitted they made mistakes and implied that had they known of Perepilichnyy’s history they may have handed the case differently.   

If the above suggest that assassination-by-poison is irrefutably connected to post-communist Russia, it might be worth mentioning Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian defector, novelist, playwright and fierce critic of his countries communist regime, who was stabbed by a ricin-tipped umbrella as he crossed Waterloo Bridge in 1978 dying four days later. The suspected hitman, a Danish Italian by the name of Francesco Giullino, was questioned but never formerly charged with the assassination, but he did receive two Bulgarian state medals ‘for services to security and public order’.

More recently, in 2017 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong claimed they inadvertently sprayed nerve agent VX into the face of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korea's dictator, Kim Jong Un, under the misapprehension it was a prank for a TV Show. Kim Jong Nam died shortly after the attack and both women were arrested and charged, but by April 2019, both had been freed from custody. 

To date, none of the alleged assassins, Alexander Petrov, Ruslan Boshirov, Andrey Lugovoy, Dmitri Kovtun and Francesco Giullino have been prosecuted and remain free. As for Gareth Williams and Alexander Perepilichnyy, we’ll probably never know. 

By Jamie Dwelly

Tuesday, 12 March, 2019 :24