Alexander Litvinenko's widow criticises Vladimir Putin's Downing St visit

Widow says Sunday's meeting with David Cameron shows UK and Russia have agreed to ignore husband's polonium poisoning

The widow of the murdered Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko has criticised David Cameron's decision to meet Vladimir Putin in Downing Street on Sunday, in the run-up to next week's G8 summit, saying it is morally wrong to "appease dictators".

Marina Litvinenko said she was not against bilateral talks between London and Moscow. But she said she was disturbed by the prime minister's increasingly personal friendship with Russia's authoritarian president, and by Cameron's apparent willingness to forget about the killing of her husband by polonium poisoning in 2006.

Putin had refused British attempts to extradite Litvinenko's two alleged assassins, former KGB agents Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, she pointed out.

"I'm not against Russia at all. I believe these two great countries have to have a friendship. But you can't avoid the question of my husband's death," she told the Guardian on Friday. She said: "Tony Blair also sought good relations with Putin. It collapsed after a couple of years. [The former US president] George Bush looked into Putin's eyes and made the same mistake. Cameron should know better. We know from history there is no point in appeasing dictators."

Her remarks came after it emerged that a prominent Russian human rights activist and Putin critic, Oksana Chelysheva, was removed from Stansted airport on Thursday. Chelysheva, who has been the target of repeated Kremlin harassment, had been due to speak about Chechnya on Friday at a major international rights conference in Derry, Northern Ireland. Immigration officials gave no reason for her exclusion. Chelysheva, who has a Finnish passport, said: "I don't believe in coincidences."

Foreign Office officials say Cameron is keen to engage with Putin in order to make progress on Syria and to move towards a peace conference in Geneva. They stress that Russia is a key international player in the Syrian conflict, and a diplomatic and military backer of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad. The Kremlin was unimpressed on Friday by US plans to arm Syria's moderate rebels and said Washington's proof that Assad had used chemical weapons "did not look convincing". The UK backs the US's stance.

Marina Litvinenko said she was convinced London and Moscow had struck a pragmatic understanding to bury the Litvinenko affair. She said: "How can you have serious talks about security in Syria with a person who doesn't want you to provide justice following a polonium terror attack in central London? It was obviously Mr Putin himself who protected Lugovoi from extradition. I believe it is Putin who also decided that Lugovoi should become a Russian MP."

The foreign secretary, William Hague, has succeeded in a controversial attempt to exclude sensitive government documents from an inquest into Litvinenko's death. The documents establish a prima facie case that the Russian state was behind his murder. As a result of Hague's gagging move the coroner has said he can no longer be satisfied the inquest can deliver justice. He has requested a public inquiry instead. The justice secretary, Chris Grayling, will rule on the request by 3 July.

After meeting Putin last month in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Cameron announced that British security services and Russia's FSB spy agency would resume intelligence co-operation in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. The former foreign secretary David Miliband broke off contact in 2007 after concluding the FSB had played a lead role in the Litvinenko murder plot. UK-Russian relations improved after Putin visited London last year, watching the judo at the Olympics with Cameron. Recently there have been a series of top-level ministerial visits.

Alex Goldfarb, Litvinenko's close friend, said Cameron's wooing of Putin would ultimately "lead to disaster". Of Sunday's Downing Street meeting, he said: "It's a licence to kill, essentially. It means Putin has impunity to kill people in the centre of London and then laugh at those who think there is something wrong about that."

Goldfarb added: "If Charlie Chaplin were alive he would make a film about Putin similar to The Great Dictator. In this case Cameron has shortchanged Marina Litvinenko and justice more generally for the sake of realpolitik with Mr Putin."

When asked about Chelysheva, British officials said they would not comment on individual cases. But a Foreign Office source said: "We would not have removed someone for criticism of the British government, let alone any foreign government."

In 2006 Chelysheva won Amnesty International's special award for human rights journalism under threat for her campaign to reveal abuses in Chechnya. She was forced to flee Russia in 2008 after police raided the offices of her human rights group. Her 2013 memoir, They Followed Me in the Street, describes her harassment by Putin's secret agents, including surveillance, "weird phone calls" and interrogations.

Paul O'Connor, the organiser of the Derry event, told the Belfast Telegraph: "Why wasn't she allowed in? We are asking the question why was an esteemed, award-winning journalist recognised by Amnesty International not allowed to enter the country." He added: "We will now have an empty chair where someone was supposed to be talking about the situation in Chechnya. It does not reflect well."

Marina Litvinenko said she had met Miliband twice when he was foreign secretary. Hague had telephoned her once but had declined to meet, citing pressure of work. An FCO official said: "We are absolutely committed to getting justice for Litvinenko's family."


Luke Harding

The GuardianTramp

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