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UK charges Russians in nerve agent attack case, May says ‘not a rogue operation’

British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks in the House of Commons on Monday March 12, 2018 in London, England about the Salisbury attack, saying the government has concluded it is "highly likely" Russia is responsible for the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury. (PA Wire/Abaca Press/TNS)
September 05, 2018

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

British prosecutors have announced charges against two Russian men they believe poisoned former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a deadly nerve agent, and Prime Minister Theresa May says the government has concluded the suspects were officers of Russia’s military intelligence agency.

In a statement on September 5, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said that it was “clearly in the public interest to charge” the Russians, Aleksander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, with crimes including attempted murder and the use of a chemical weapon.

Police issued photographs of the suspects, while Russia continued to deny involvement.

Prosecutors “have considered the evidence and have concluded there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction,” it said.

May told Parliament that based on the intelligence gathered so far, “the government has concluded that the two individuals named by the police and the CPS are officers from the Russian military intelligence service, also known as the GRU.”

“This was also not a rogue operation,” she said. “It was almost certainly approved outside the GRU, at a senior level of the Russian state.”

A senior British police official, Neil Basu, called it “the most significant moment so far in what has been one of the most complex and intensive investigations we have undertaken in counterterrorism policing.”

The CPS said that a European arrest warrant had been issued for the two Russians but that Britain would not seek their extradition, suggesting it would be fruitless to do so.

“We will not be applying to Russia for the extradition of these men as the Russian Constitution does not permit extradition of its own nationals,” said Sue Hemming, director of legal services at the CPS.

Britain’s Metropolitan Police said the men, both about 40, flew from Moscow to London on Russian passports two days before the Skripals were poisoned on March 4.

“It is likely that they were travelling under aliases and that these are not their real names,” the police said, asking anyone who knows the suspects or saw them in Britain to contact the authorities.

Sergei Skripal, a former double agent who was sent west in a 2010 spy swap, and his daughter, Yulia, were found unconscious on a bench in the English city of Salisbury that afternoon.

They were both in critical condition and spent several weeks in the hospital, but were later released and “thankfully are now making a good recovery,” Basu said.

British officials say they were poisoned with Novichok, a military-grade chemical weapon that was developed in the Soviet Union, and blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government for the attack.

Russia denies involvement, and a diplomatic dispute over the case has led to sanctions and the expulsion of more than 150 Russian diplomats from two dozen Western countries.

Speaking ahead of the U.K. announcement, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov again denied any Russian role in the poisoning, saying that Russia has no new information about it because Britain has refused to share case files.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on September 5 that the names and photographs released by British authorities “say nothing” to Moscow.

Russia’s envoy to the world’s chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said that Moscow believes the British announcement was a “provocation.”

“We said right away that Russia had nothing to do with the Salisbury incident,” Aleksandr Shulgin told Russian state media.

Sergei Skripal, a former colonel in Russia’s military intelligence agency, was convicted of treason in 2006 by a Russian court. Moscow released him from prison in 2010, sending him to the West in a Cold War-style spy swap, and he lived in Salisbury at the time of the poisoning. His daughter was visiting from Russia.

On June 30, two people collapsed in a house in Amesbury, near Salisbury where the Skripals were poisoned with Novichok. Dawn Sturgess died in a hospital in July, while her partner, Charlie Rowley, later recovered. Police said they were exposed after handling what they believed to be perfume.

On September 4, the OPCW said laboratory tests showed that Sturgess’s death was caused by the same substance that poisoned Skripal and his daughter.

However, it was not possible to conclude whether the nerve agent used in the May and June incidents was from the same batch, the OPCW said.