A judge has ruled that the British government has the right to withhold information relating to alleged links between British spy agencies and a Russian millionaire who died in mysterious circumstances in England.
Aleksandr Perepilichny was a wealthy and influential investment banker living in Moscow. In 2009, however, he fled Russia saying that his life had been threatened following a business disagreement. He resettled in Surrey, south of London, and began cooperating with Swiss authorities who were investigating a multimillion dollar money-laundering scheme involving senior Russian government officials. Described by some as the biggest tax fraud in Russian history, the scheme is said to have defrauded the Russian Treasury of at least $240 million.
On November 10, 2012, having just returned to his luxury Surrey home from a three-day trip to France, Perepilichny went out to jog. He was found dead later that evening, having collapsed in the middle of a side street near his house. He was 44. A postmortem examination concluded that Perepilichny had died of natural causes and pointed to the strong possibility of a heart attack. However, lawyers representing the late businessman’s family told a pre-inquest hearing that Perepilichny stomach was found to have traces of gelsemium, a shrub-like plant that is a “known weapon of assassination [used] by Chinese and Russian contract killers”.
The case is now being revisited following the failed attempt last March, allegedly by the Kremlin, to assassinate Sergei Skripal, a Russian former spy who defected to England in 2010. For the past several months, submissions have been filed for an inquest into Perepilichny’s mysterious death. But the British government said that it would not reveal any information relating to possible contacts between the late Russian businessman and British intelligence. The question was raised in June by lawyers representing Legal and General, Perepilichny’s life insurance company. They argued that if Perepilichny had close dealings with British intelligence, it would have raised significantly the threat that his life was under. But British Home Secretary Sajid Javid argued that releasing documents implicating the intelligence services with the late Russian businessman would endanger national security.
On Monday the judge leading the inquest into Perepilichny’s death ruled in favor of the British government’s position. The judge, Nicholas Hilliard QC, has security clearance and was therefore able to review the relevant evidence behind closed doors, during a secret session. He then ruled that “publicly releasing intelligence information [relating to Perepilichny] would pose a real risk of serious harm to national security”. Critics argue that the Skripal case has heightened public interest in Russian covert activities on British soil and that the public has the right to know whether the death of Perepilichny was in any way connected to the intelligence realm. The inquest continues this week.