Poland exhumes late leader’s body in probe of 2010 plane crash in Russia

Lech KaczyńskiAuthorities in Poland have exhumed the body of the country’s late prime minister and his wife as part of an investigation into the 2010 airplane disaster that killed them and nearly 100 others in Russia. The move has reignited persistent rumors that the crash that killed everyone onboard the plane, including Polish President Lech Kaczyński and his wife Maria, was not an accident. At the time of their death, the couple were leading a delegation of Polish officials and journalists traveling to Russia to participate in commemorations marking 70 years from the so-called ‘Katyn massacre’. The term refers to the extermination of approximately 22,000 Polish soldiers and civilians that was carried out by the Soviet military and secret services in 1940, following the Soviet invasion of Poland.

Investigations of the air disaster have been carried out by Russia and by the previous Polish administration, headed by the centrist Civic Platform party, which governed the country from 2010 until 2015. Both concluded that the crash was an accident. But the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS), headed by Jarosław Kaczyński, twin brother of the late president, insists that previous investigations were incomplete and has initiated its own probe into the matter. Almost as soon as it formed a national government last year, the rightwing PiS reopened the investigation into the 2010 air crash. The exhumation of the victims’ bodies, which began on Monday, is the first step of the new probe.

Many supporters of the new investigation claim that bombs hidden onboard the plane caused it to crash. Others suggest that the Polish government at the time is to blame for the crash, because it neglected to properly service the plane. Some have even suggested that Donald Tusk, Poland’s prime minister at the time of the crash, who now heads the European Council, should be put on trial for the murder of President Kaczyński. Critics note that no credible evidence has been put forward to support the assassination theory or the deliberate neglect theory, barring some circumstantial discrepancies in the Russian-language documents. The current probe is expected to last several months.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 November 2016 | Permalink

Mystery death of Putin’s ex-adviser in DC was accident, say US authorities

Mikhail LesinThe mysterious death in Washington, DC, of a former senior adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had fallen out with the Russian president, was the result of an accident, US authorities have concluded after a year-long investigation. The body of Mikhail Yuriyevich Lesin, a well-known Russian media mogul, was found in the luxury Dupont Circle Hotel on November 5, 2015. According to reports, his body bore considerable injuries on his torso and limbs. Some unconfirmed updates suggested that Lesin had died from several “blunt force injuries to the head”. But United States authorities refused to speculate on the cause of Lesin’s death and opened an official investigation into the matter.

Lesin became famous in Russia soon after the collapse of the communist system, when he founded Video International, an advertising and public-relations agency that was hired by Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1995 to run his reelection campaign. Yeltsin’s electoral success was partly attributed to the well-tailored media message projected by Lesin’s company. The media magnate was rewarded by Yeltsin, who offered him influential government posts, including that of director of Russia’s state-owned news agency Novosti. Meanwhile, Lesin became a media personality and frequently gave interviews espousing a free-enterprise model for the Russian media industry. But soon after Vladimir Putin’s ascendance to the presidency, Lesin saw the writing on the wall and began advocating for increased government regulation of media and telecommunications conglomerates. In 1999, Putin made him Minister of Press, Broadcasting and Mass Communications, a post he held for nearly six years, until 2004. In 2006, Lesin was awarded the Order for Merit to the Fatherland, one of the most prestigious civilian decorations in Russia.

But in late 2009, Putin abruptly fired Lesin from his post in the Kremlin’s Media Advisory Commission, allegedly because the media mogul had developed close contacts with Russian organized crime. Lesin’s ties with Putin’s inner circle were further strained in 2014, when he resigned from his position as head of Gazprom Media, after he clashed with pro-Putin executives on the board. Last November, when Lesin’s body was found in his hotel room by a member of the staff, some suggested that he may have been killed by the Kremlin. But On Friday, the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, DC, in cooperation with the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, said that Lesin’s death had been the result of injuries “induced by falls”, which came after “days of excessive consumption of alcohol”. The two agencies said that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which had assisted in the investigation into Lesin’s death, concurred with the results. Consequently, the investigation is now closed, they said. The Kremlin, the Russian embassy in Washington, and the FBI, have not commented on the case.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 October 2016 | Permalink

Argentine ex-spy says government killed prosecutor Alberto Nisman

Alberto NismanAn Argentine former senior intelligence official has claimed in court testimony that the administration of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner murdered a state prosecutor who had accused senior officials of having colluded with Iran to bomb Israeli targets in Buenos Aires. In January 2015, the prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, prompted international headlines by launching a criminal complaint against President Kirchner and several other notable personalities of Argentine political life. Nisman accused them of having colluded with the government of Iran to obstruct an investigation into the bombings of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires in the mid-1990s. A dozen people died in the bombing of the embassy, while another 85 were killed two years later, when the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina community center in the Argentine capital was bombed. Nisman was found dead on January 19, 2015, hours before he was due to give Congressional testimony on the subject. His body was found in the bathroom of his apartment, which had been locked from the inside.

Argentine authorities say they believe Nisman killed himself with a single shot to the head from a .22 caliber handgun. His family, however, as well as many notable personalities in Argentina, believe he was murdered on the orders of government officials who wanted to silence him. Such claims were reinforced this week following a dramatic 17-hour court testimony by Antonio Horacio Stiuso, better known as Jaime Stiuso, who served as chief operating officer for Argentina’s Secretaría de Inteligencia del Estado (SIDE) under President Kirchner. Stiuso was fired after Nisman’s death, when the government suddenly dissolved SIDE and replaced it with a new agency, the Agencia Federal de Inteligencia. In justifying the dramatic move, President Kirchner accused SIDE of feeding Nisman fabricated information implicating her and her government minsters in a fictional collusion with the Islamic Republic, and then killing him in order to destabilize her rule. She then charged SIDE’s leadership, including Stiuso, with involvement in Nisman’s killing. Stiuso promptly fled Buenos Aires for Brazil, from where he flew to Miami, Florida, on February 19, using an Italian passport.

But the former spy recently returned to Argentina and on Monday he testified in a closed-door hearing as part of an official investigation into Nisman’s death. Although Stiuso gave his testimony in secret, Argentine media published several extracts on Tuesday, which appear to have been leaked by witnesses. According to the excerpts, Stiuso accused members of an “inner circle” inside President Kirchner’s government of having killed Nisman and then tampered with incriminating evidence from the scene of the crime. The former spy appears to have told the judge in the case, Fabiana Palmaghina, that the state prosecutor’s death “was intimately linked to the work he was doing”. He is reported to have added that “the author of all this madness was that woman, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Stiuso has refrained from talking to the media, and his comments to the court have not been confirmed. However, the judge in the case, who previously favored the view that Nisman committed suicide, has now referred Nisman’s case to a higher federal court in Argentina with instructions that it be examined as a possible homicide.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 March 2016 | Permalink

Forensic experts to probe alleged poisoning of Nobel Laureate poet Neruda

Pablo NerudaTwo teams of international experts will examine the exhumed remains of Chilean Nobel Laureate poet Pablo Neruda, who some say was deliberately injected with poison by the Chilean intelligence services. The literary icon died on September 23, 1973, less than two weeks after a coup d’état, led by General Augusto Pinochet, toppled the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, a Marxist who was a close friend of Neruda. The death of the internationally acclaimed poet, who was 69 at the time, was officially attributed to prostate cancer and the effects of acute mental stress caused by the military coup. In 2013, however, an official investigation was launched into Neruda’s death following allegations that he had been murdered.

The investigation was sparked by comments made by Neruda’s personal driver, Manuel Araya, who said that the poet had been deliberately injected with poison while receiving treatment for cancer at the Clinica Santa Maria in Chilean capital Santiago. According to Araya, General Pinochet ordered Neruda’s assassination after he was told that the poet was preparing to seek political asylum in Mexico. The Chilean dictatorship allegedly feared that Neruda would seek to form a government-in-exile and oppose the regime of General Pinochet. Last year, Spanish newspaper El País said it had been given access to a report prepared by Chile’s Ministry of the Interior, which allegedly argues that it was unlikely that Neruda’s death was the “consequence of his prostate cancer”. According to the paper, the document states that it was “manifestly possible and highly probable” that the poet’s death was the outcome of “direct intervention by third parties”. The report also explains that Neruda’s alleged murder resulted from a fast-acting substance that was injected into his body or entered it orally.

On Wednesday, it was announced that two teams of genomics and forensic experts, one in Canada and one in Denmark, will examine Neruda’s bones and teeth in an effort to extract fragments of bacterial DNA. According to reports, the experts hope that the extracted DNA will provide them with genomic data that can help identify pathogenic bacteria. That, in turn, could help establish a possible cause of death. The two teams are based at the Ancient DNA Center at McMaster University in Canada and the Department of Forensic Medicine at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 February 2016 | Permalink | News tip: R.W.

Dead body found on plane carrying millions in cash in Zimbabwe

HarareAn American-registered airplane carrying large quantities of cash on behalf of a South African bank was impounded by authorities in Zimbabwe after a dead body was found on board. Zimbabwean media said police was notified after human blood was seen dripping from the plane’s cargo area during an emergency refueling stop. Authorities said the plane belonged to Western Global Airlines, a Florida-based transportation company that specializes in chartering flights to Africa. Its crew includes at least two Americans, a Pakistani and a South African citizen.

According to officials in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, the cargo plane had been traveling from Germany to South Africa when it made an emergency request to land at the Harare International Airport. An earlier request by the crew to land in neighboring Mozambique had been turned down. But after refueling the plane, attendants at Harare airport noticed that there was blood dripping from the plane’s cargo area. When they opened the door, they discovered “a suspended body in the plane”, said The Herald, one of Zimbabwe’s largest newspapers.

It was later established that the plane was carrying millions of South African rand on behalf of the South African Reserve Bank (SARB), which is the central bank of South Africa. An official at the bank said on Monday that SARB was “aware of an aircraft carrying a SARB consignment that stopped in Harare and was detained”, but gave no further information. The Zimbabwe Civil Aviation Authority said the matter had been forwarded for investigation to police authorities. The ambassador of South Africa to Zimbabwe, Vusi Mavimbela said media reports about the incident were accurate, but refused to provide details, saying the matter was under investigation.

The last time authorities in Zimbabwe impounded a foreign-owned airplane was in 2004, when a Boeing 727 registered in South Africa was found to contain several tons of weapons and 64 troops. The troops, who were mercenaries from several countries, including South Africa, Britain and Armenia, were on their way to Equatorial Guinea to stage a military coup in return for a share in profits from the country’s lucrative oil sector.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 February 2016 | Permalink

Ex-KGB spy accused of Litvinenko murder says MI6 tried to recruit him

Andrei Lugovoi A Russian former intelligence officer, who is accused by the British government of having killed another Russian former spy in London, said the British intelligence services tried to recruit him in 2006. British government prosecutors have charged Andrei Lugovoi with the killing of Alexander Litvinenko, a former employee of the Soviet KGB and one of its successor agencies, the FSB. In 2006, Litvinenko died in London, where he had defected with his family in 2000, following exposure to the highly radioactive substance Polonium-210. In July of 2007, the British government charged Lugovoi and another Russian, Dmitri Kovtun, with the murder of Litvinenko, and expelled four Russian diplomats from London. Last week, following the conclusion of an official inquest into the former KGB spy’s death, the British government took the unusual step of summoning the Russian ambassador to London, to file an official complaint about Moscow’s refusal to extradite Lugovoi and Kovtun to the United Kingdom.

But Lugovoi, who is now a member of the Russian Duma, denies any involvement in Litvinenko’s murder and has dismissed as “completely absurd” the inquest’s conclusion that he was behind the killing. Speaking last week on Russian television, Lugovoi reiterated his criticism of the report and claimed British intelligence had tried to recruit him shortly before Litvinenko’s murder. The Duma member was a guest on This Evening, a high-profile talk show on Russia’s Channel 1 television, hosted by Vladimir Sovolyev, a popular television personality and talk show host. Lugovoi told Sovolyev that he found it interesting that the British government “was always happy to grant me visas” to travel to the UK, even though London knew he was a former KGB spy. “Then, in May of 2006”, approximately six months before Litvinenko was killed, “MI6 tried to recruit me”, he added. He was referring to the Secret Intelligence Service, Britain’s primary external intelligence organization.

The former KGB officer then reiterated his longstanding argument that he and Kovtun were also poisoned by the same Polonium given to Litvinenko by the person or persons who killed him. He told Sovolyev that, after meeting Litvinenko in London a few days before his death, he fell violently ill and had to spend several months in a Russian hospital recovering from radiation poisoning. Lugovoi also hinted that the British government may have killed Litvinenko for reasons of its own. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not comment on Lugovoi’s statement, but said in a press release that London’s accusations against the two former spies were “politically motivated” and “non-transparent”. The UK maintains that Lugovoi and Kovtun fell ill because they did not handle the Polonium given to them by their handlers with the appropriate amount of care.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 January 2016 | Permalink

Britain summons Russian envoy to protest killing of ex-KGB spy in London

Sir Robert OwenThe British government has taken the unusual step of summoning the Russian ambassador to London, following the conclusion of an official inquest into the death of a former KGB officer who is believed to have been killed on the orders of Moscow. Alexander Litvinenko, an employee of the Soviet KGB and one of its successor organizations, the FSB, defected with his family to the United Kingdom in 2000. But in 2006, he died of radioactive poisoning after meeting two former KGB/FSB colleagues, Dmitri Kovtun and Andrey Lugovoy, in London. A public inquiry into the death of Litvinenko, ordered by the British state, concluded this week after six months of deliberations involving sworn testimony by over 60 witnesses, including British intelligence officers who worked closely with Litvinenko.

In releasing the inquiry report, the presiding judge, Sir Robert Owen, said it was clear that Kovtun and Lugovoi “were acting on behalf of someone else” when they killed their former colleague in London. He added that members of the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin, including the Russian president himself, had “motives for taking action” against Litvinenko, “including killing him”. Moreover, President Putin’s systematic protection of Lugovoi, the primary suspect in the case, whom Russia currently refuses to extradite to the UK, “suggest a level of approval for the killing” at the highest levels of the Russian government, said Sir Robert.

Speaking during a session in the British House of Commons on Thursday, the UK’s Home Secretary Theresa May described Litvinenko’s killing as “a blatant and unacceptable breach of the most fundamental tenets of international law and civilized behavior”. On the same day, David Lidington, a Minister of state at the British Foreign Office, who currently serves as the country’s Minister for Europe, summoned the Russian Ambassador to London, Alexander Yakovenko, to file an official protest against Litvinenko’s murder. Meanwhile, the British state has moved to freeze the assets of the two main suspects in the case, while British Prime Minister David Cameron said further punitive measures against Russia were possible. Speaking to reporters in Davos, Switzerland, where he is participating in the World Economic Forum, Cameron said Britain wanted to have “some sort of relationship” with the Kremlin in light of the situation in Syria. But Whitehall would “look very carefully at the report and all the detail” and would proceed “with clear eyes and a very cold heart”, he said.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 January 2016 | Permalink