UK orders some details to be kept secret in Novichok poisoning inquiry

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) - The British government has ordered some documents to be kept secret by an inquiry into the death of a woman killed by the Novichok nerve agent following the 2018 attempted murder of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, the inquiry heard on Friday.

Dawn Sturgess died from exposure to Novichok in July 2018 after her partner found a counterfeit perfume bottle which British police believe had been used by Russian intelligence operatives to smuggle the poison into the country.

Skripal, who sold Russian secrets to Britain, and his daughter Yulia had been found slumped unconscious on a public bench in the southern English city of Salisbury four months earlier.

They and a police officer who went to Skripal's house were left critically ill in hospital from exposure to the military-grade nerve agent, but later recovered.

While British police have charged three Russians, who they say are GRU military intelligence officers, in absentia over the attack on Skripal and his daughter, no formal case has been brought against them over the death of Sturgess, 44.

An inquest into her death has been replaced by a public inquiry to allow it to consider highly confidential information from the police and the security services.

Britain says the attempt on Skripal's life was ordered by figures high up in the Russian state, and the incident caused the biggest East-West diplomatic expulsions since the Cold War.

Russia has denied any involvement, casting the accusations as anti-Russian propaganda. The inquiry's chair, former Supreme Court judge Anthony Hughes said his inquiry would examine the evidence on which the British claims were based.

At a preliminary hearing for the inquiry on Friday, its lawyer Andrew O'Connor said the then home secretary (interior minister) had taken the "exceptional measure" of signing a 'Restriction Notice' in August to keep an "extremely small proportion" of the material from the government secret.

A decision on what should be kept secret usually rests with the chair, O'Connor said.

Hughes said he understood he would be able to consider the material and refer to it in his final report, but added it would cause "very considerable difficulties" if not.

The inquiry is currently considering in general what information is relevant and what can be made public or disclosed to Sturgess's family before it holds substantive hearings.

Cathryn McGahey, the government's lawyer, said it was vital that no information which could help a hostile state or terrorists to carry out another attack was disclosed, saying it was a slow process to ensure this.

The date for the inquiry's full hearings has not yet been set, but Hughes agreed on Friday these would initially begin in Salisbury before moving to London.

(Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Angus MacSwan)