LONDON – The body of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko was so radioactive that his post-mortem was "one of the most dangerous" ever undertaken and the isotope that killed him so rare it would not have been discovered by a normal autopsy, a pathologist said Wednesday.
Nathaniel Cary, who conducted the post mortem examination, told an inquiry into the death that Litvinenko's corpse was so hazardous that it was left in place for two days after he died in a London hospital on Nov. 23, 2006, from poisoning with radioactive polonium-210.
Cary said the autopsy conducted by medics in protective clothing and ventilation hoods was "one of the most dangerous post-mortem examinations ever undertaken in the Western world."
Litvinenko, a former KGB agent turned Kremlin critic, fell violently ill on Nov. 1, 2006, after drinking tea with two Russian men at a London hotel, and spent three weeks in hospital before he died.
On his deathbed, Litvinenko accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of ordering his assassination, and Britain has also alleged that the Russian state was involved.
Cary said he did not know of another confirmed case of polonium poisoning anywhere in the world, and the isotope's presence would not have been discovered by routine post-mortem toxicology tests. He said the cause of death would likely have remained a mystery was it not for a urine test conducted by a doctor, on a hunch, shortly before Litvinenko died.
Ben Emmerson, lawyer for the dead man's widow Marina Litvinenko, suggested that polonium's rarity made it an ideal assassination weapon.
Police Det. Insp. Craig Mascall told the inquiry that the investigation remains active, and the men who met Litvinenko — Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi — are still wanted for murder.
They have denied involvement, and Russia has refused to extradite them. The judge leading the inquiry has invited them to give evidence by video-link, but he has no power to compel them.
Lugovoi, a former KGB agent who is now a Russian lawmaker, told The Associated Press that evidence being presented at the inquiry was "nonsense."
"Such evidence simply does not exist because Russia wasn't involved," Lugovoi said at his office in Russia's parliament.
Lugovoi also said the inquiry was designed to "whitewash" the involvement of British intelligence agency MI6. Litvinenko's family says he was working for MI6 when he died.