Ex-KGB agent, Poisoned Tea and King & Spalding lawyer demand justice
If James Bond were a lawyer, his practice might resemble that of Ben Emmerson.
The London partner of King & Spalding has just won an unprecedented lawsuit (at least in principle) on behalf of Marina Litvinenko. Her husband Alexander, a former KGB agent who was granted asylum in the UK, died in 2006 of polonium poisoning after drinking tea in London with two acquaintances from Russia.
This isn’t the first headline-grabbing case for Emmerson, who was played by Ralph Fiennes in the 2019 film âOfficial Secrets,â about British intelligence whistleblower Katharine Gun.
He will appear on the small screen in a recently announced four-part ITV series on the Litvinenko case. Stephen Campbell Moore (“The History Boys”, “Downton Abbey”) is chosen as an international public law lawyer.
Emmerson would even have been the inspiration for gruff but heroic human rights litigator Mark Darcy in “Bridget Jones’ Diary”. He denies it (he told me he had never even met author Helen Fielding), but the mere fact that it sounds plausible says a lot about him and his work.
I was fortunate enough to meet Emmerson for a broad conversation about his time at King & Spalding from Monckton Chambers in November 2020, his practice at the intersection of public international law, litigation and corporate risk management, and the Litvinenko case, which was decided by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg last week.
âThis is the first time that Russia or any other state has been held accountable in an international tribunal for a politically sponsored assassination,â he said of the 6-1 decision. (Russian judge Dmitry Dedov was dissenting.)
At the same time, Emmerson called the financial compensation – 100,000 euros for moral injury and 22,500 euros for costs – as “disappointing.”
He had asked the court to set a new precedent by also awarding punitive damages, but the majority refused, writing without further details that they had found “no reason to deviate from established case law.”
Emmerson, who is arguing the pro bono case, told me he plans to appeal the damages decision to the body’s Grand Chamber.
Rather than giving Russia “a hit on the fingers, (the punishment) should be a very hard punch in the face,” he said.
A penalty of 100,000 euros becomes an operational cost, he added, not a deterrent. “To have an impact, it would have to be a number that appears in the Kremlin’s annual budget.”
Speaking at a press briefing, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova criticized the court for “cultivating an atmosphere of Russophobia” and said: “We cannot understand the court’s position. , which, in fact, decided to endorse clearly politicized and legally dubious, to say the least, the findings of the national judicial body of a member country of the Council of Europe.
Founded in 1959 to deal with alleged violations of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights, the tribunal, in its decision of September 21, exposed a damning series of events beginning when Litvinenko, while he was still in Russia, has made public allegations that it was ordered to investigate the murder of a wealthy businessman.
Litvinenko and his wife fled to the UK in 2000 and became UK citizens in 2006, changing their names to Edwin and Maria Carter. From abroad, Litvinenko continued to write and talk about corruption in the Russian intelligence services.
At the end of October 2006, he met a longtime acquaintance, Andrei Lugovoy – who the court found to be a former KGB officer – and a friend of Lugovoy’s named Dmitry Kovtun, at a London hotel bar to have some tea. Litvinenko said the jar was already on the table when he arrived.
The next day Litvinenko fell ill with vomiting, abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea. He died three weeks later from acute radiation syndrome caused by very high levels of polonium 210, a rare radioactive isotope. He had to be buried in a lead-lined coffin to avoid contaminating the ground, Emmerson said.
British investigators have reported finding traces of polonium in Lugovoy and Kovtun’s hotel rooms, on their seats at a London football stadium where they had watched a match, in a restaurant where they had eaten, on the plane in which they had stolen – and the teapot.
âThey left a trace of polonium like Hansel and Gretel,â Emmerson said.
However, Russia refused to extradite either man to face murder charges. Lugovoy, who became a member of the Russian parliament, denied at a 2007 press conference any involvement in the poisoning and blamed the British Secret Service for the murder.
Judges of the European Court of Human Rights in the majority decision rejected Russia’s argument that there was no basis for criminal responsibility, writing that it “has been established, beyond of any reasonable doubt âthat Lugovoy and Kovtun poisoned Litvinenko and that they were acting on on behalf of Russia.
“There was no evidence that either of the two men had a personal reason for killing Mr. Litvinenko and it was not plausible that if they had acted on their own behalf they would have had access to the rare radioactive isotope used to poison him, “the court said. .
In pleading the pro bono case, Emmerson said he was encouraged by King & Spalding’s support. With over 1,200 lawyers, 65 of them in London, this is far more than its previous firms, including Matrix Chambers and Doughty Street Chambers.
He said he was drawn to King & Spalding, whom he joined 11 months ago as global head of his public international law practice, for his strong practice in international arbitration and his expertise in the treatment of disputes between investors and sovereign states.
While much of Emerson’s experience, notably as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Counterterrorism, has involved issues arising from violence or armed conflict, he sees deeper roots in disputes.
âThere’s usually an economic or resource issue at the heart of it all,â he said.
âFor a long time, it felt like commercial lawyers were one group and international lawyers were another,â Emmerson continued. But moving on to Big Law, he sees an opening to combine the two in “a cross between the commercial and the political.”
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