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UK refuses Litvinenko death public inquiry: coroner

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A picture of Russian dissident and former spy Alexander Litvinenko pinned to flowers outside the University College Hospital in central London, November 23, 2007. Britain will not hold a public inquiry into the death of Litvinenko, a coroner said on Friday, leaving the current, lower-level inquest proceedings close to collapse.AFP/File

The British government has refused to hold a public inquiry into the poisoning of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, a coroner said Friday, leaving the current proceedings on the verge of collapse.

Coroner Robert Owen had sought a full public inquiry to replace his lower-level inquest into the 2006 murder of the former spy in London as he is not authorised to investigate the possible involvement of the Russian state.

But he told a hearing at London's Royal Courts of Justice on Friday that the British government had only around one hour earlier denied his request for a judge-led inquiry into the killing.

Litvinenko, 43, was poisoned with radioactive polonium-210 while drinking tea at a London hotel.

His widow Marina has claimed that her husband, a former KGB agent, was working for Britain's foreign intelligence agency MI6 at the time of his slow and agonising death, and that he was killed on the orders of the Kremlin.

Her lawyer Ben Emmerson told Friday's hearing that the British government had shown an "utter lack of professionalism" in the way it handled the request for a public inquiry.

"The repeated catalogue of broken promises is a sign of something gone awry," Emmerson told the court.

The current inquest into Litvinenko's death was thrown into doubt in May when Owen ruled that he could not hear evidence concerning Russia's alleged role, following an application by the British foreign ministry to keep it secret.

Owen had said he would be failing in his duty "to undertake a full, fair and fearless inquiry into the circumstances of Mr Litvinenko's death" if he was forced to disregard the evidence for national security reasons.

He suggested that the death could instead be considered in a public inquiry in which the evidence alleging Russian state involvement "could be taken into account".

Under English law, evidence cannot be heard in secret as part of an inquest, but could be presented behind closed doors as part of a public inquiry.

Inquests, which are held to examine sudden or unexplained deaths, set out to determine the place and time of death as well as how the deceased came by their death, but they do not apportion blame.