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The Government has been accused of delaying the inquiry into the Novichok poisonings by carrying out “necessary” security checks before handing over evidence.
A public inquiry has been set up to investigate the death of Dawn Sturgess and hospitalisations of Sergei Skripal, Yulia Skripal, Charlie Rowley, and Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey when they came into contact with the deadly nerve agent in 2018.
It is believed Novichok was brought into the UK by Russian agents, with the aim of targeting Mr Skripal – an opponent of Vladimir Putin’s regime - in Salisbury, but later fell into the hands of Ms Sturgess who mistook it for perfume.
At a preliminary hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice on Friday, inquiry counsel Andrew O’Connor QC said his team of investigators have faced a “very time-consuming” five-month time-lag in obtaining evidence held by the government.
“That stage has been described as a preliminary security review stage, at which a large proportion of the HM Government and police documentation is reviewed by HM Government for sensitivity before they are shown to us in closed conditions in order that we could consider their relevance”, he said.
“Time is necessarily spent reviewing documentation for sensitivity that ultimately proves to be irrelevant once we have seen it.”
Mr O’Connor said the government has so far rejected requests for the inquiry to see all the evidence before it undergoes the security review.
Michael Mansfield QC, representing the Sturgess family, said they have been patient with the process so far, understanding the national security context of the investigation, but told the hearing: “that patience is running very thin indeed”.
He said a security review must have been undertaken before public statements were made by former Prime Minister Theresa May and ex-cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill about the poisonings, while a decision has since been made to charge three Russian citizens with the Novichok poisonings.
“The prosecutors must have considered the possibility of having to go public with at least some of it”, he said.
Mr Mansfield argued for a “streamlined” disclosure process, saying: “There’s no point having a screening review of material that may not be relevant.”
Pointing out there are no dates set for the full inquiry to take place, he added: “The family, nevermind the public, are owed a little bit of hope.”
Georgina Wolfe, representing the government, said the disclosure process has been reviewed and is expected to be swifter in the future.
“We recognise the family’s understandable frustration at the length of time disclosure has taken”, she said. “The family are at the centre of proceedings, and their frustration must be compounded by the fact this work necessarily takes place behind closed doors.
“Every efforts is being made to progress disclosure as quickly and as safely as possible.”
She said the government is concerned about “inadvertent disclosure” of sensitive material, posing a national security risk, and said she would only be able to explain the reason for the preliminary security check on evidence in a private session of the inquiry.
The first Novichok poisonings happened on March 4, 2018, when the Skripals were found suffering the effects of the nerve agent on a park bench. They both underwent hospital treatment and survived.
On June 30, 2018, a second incident of poisoning happened in Amesbury - seven miles from Salisbury - involving the same bottle of Novichok.
It is believed Mr Rowley found the bottle and gave it to Ms Sturgess, who sprayed in on to her wrist believing it was perfume. She died in hospital on July 8, while Mr Rowley was also poisoned but survived.
The investigation into Ms Sturgess’ death began as an inquest under Lady Hallett, but she was then appointed to oversee the Covid-19 inquiry.
In her final hearing, Lady Hallett complained about a government delay in appointing her successor to lead the inquiry, before Lord Hughes of Ombersley was ultimately chosen by Home Secretary Priti Patel.
Barristers for inquiry participants are present in court for today’s hearing, but other legal representatives, journalists, and Ms Sturgess’ father Stan Sturgess are following proceedings online.
The hearing has been beset by technical difficulties, with Mr Sturgess struggling to connect, the sole working microphone in court having to be passed around between lawyers, and the chair of the inquiry being rendered virtually inaudible for online viewers.