The British coroner investigating the 2018 novichok poisoning of Dawn Sturgess will have to expand the scope of the forthcoming inquest into her death, to potentially include the role of Russian agents in addition to the two accused of killing her, the High Court has ruled.
However, the judges said the inquest does not have to examine the role of alleged Russian state involvement.
Sturgess, 44, died in July 2018 after coming into contact with novichok in the Wiltshire town of Amesbury, four months after former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia Skripal fell critically ill after being exposed to the same nerve agent in March 2018 in Salisbury, nine miles away.
British police have since charged Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, two senior officers from the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, with the attempted murder of the Skripals and the murder of Sturgess.
The attack highlighted the threat posed by Russia, which was underlined this week when parliament’s intelligence and security committee published its much-delayed report into Russian operations in the UK. It concluded that ministers had “badly underestimated” the threat posed by Moscow.
On Friday, the High Court partly ruled in favour of an application by the Sturgess family, who wanted the senior coroner for Wiltshire and Swindon to expand the scope of the inquest to examine whether other Russian GRU officers were involved in directing Mr Petrov and Mr Boshirov.
In February 2019, a third Russian GRU agent, Denis Sergeev, was identified by the investigative website Bellingcat as having travelled to the UK from Moscow at the time of the attack.
Lord Justice Bean and Mr Justice Lewis ruled that the coroner could not “properly justify an investigation as narrow as that which he has proposed”. They said the coroner must broaden the scope of the inquest given the “acute and obvious public concern” that an attempt had been “made on British soil by Russian agents to assassinate Mr Skripal and that it led to the death of Ms Sturgess”, and the fact that it involved the use of a “prohibited nerve agent exposing the population of Salisbury and Amesbury to lethal risk.”
The judges also pointed out that it was unlikely there would ever be a criminal trial which will examine details of this “appalling event”.
However, the judges ruled that the coroner was right to conclude that his duties under article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights did not require him in the inquest to investigate the wider issue of Russian state responsibility. They said there was no duty to investigate the actions of a different state where those led to a death in the UK.
The case will now go back before the coroner who will decide how to proceed and determine the new boundaries which the inquest will examine. No date has been given for the inquest.