Sunday, June 10, 2007

U.S. Rejected Litvinenko's Asylum Bid

Before Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian intelligence agent fatally poisoned in London last year, sought asylum in Britain, he first tried to flee to the United States, according to a new book that also offers fresh details of his uneasy life and relationship with the former KGB agent now accused of murdering him.

According to "Death of a Dissident," written by Litvinenko's friend Alex Goldfarb and his widow, Marina, to be published Tuesday by Free Press, Litvinenko nearly won a new life in the United States when he fled Russia in 2000. But at the last minute, he was told that officials in Washington had "changed their mind" and would not give him a visa. Litvinenko then fled to Britain, where he was killed in November at age 43, poisoned with a lethal dose of the rare radioactive isotope polonium-210.

The book recounts that in late October 2000, Goldfarb, a former Russian biologist who had become a U.S. citizen, flew from New York to Turkey, where Litvinenko had gone with his wife and their 6-year-old son, Anatoly, after they fled Russia. Goldfarb took them to the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, where Litvinenko was questioned for four hours by a man identified only as Mark, who Litvinenko believed was an American intelligence agent. Litvinenko was then told to go back to his hotel to await the decision from Washington as to whether he would be given the visa he needed to enter the United States. ...

As Litvinenko waited for Goldfarb's cellphone to ring with news from the U.S. Embassy, he spotted a man he believed was a Russian agent watching him. After pretending to go up to their hotel rooms, Litvinenko, his family and Goldfarb got into a car and sped to Istanbul, more than 200 miles away. Goldfarb said he turned off his cellphone "because I was afraid that we could be tracked somehow."

When Goldfarb switched on his phone and finally talked to Mark, who had left many messages, he said: "Good news, pal, we're taking them. Twenty minutes, we'll pick them up."

But then Goldfarb told him they were in Istanbul.

"Istanbul? Why in the world did you go there?"

"Someone was watching at the hotel, so we ran."

"I see. Well, that's a complication. Is anyone watching you now?"

"I don't think so."

"Okay, keep your phone on. I'll get back to you."

When Mark called again, his voice was different: "Bad news, pal, they've changed their mind. We are not taking them."

No explanation was given for why the decision was reversed, though Goldfarb and Marina Litvinenko said they assumed that helping Litvinenko couldn't be done quietly. U.S. officials did not want to risk aggravating Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had recently taken office. ...

During his hours at the U.S. Embassy, Litvinenko had given the Americans a name they had eagerly sought, according to the book, though the name is not disclosed. In the interview, Goldfarb said it was the name of an American based in Germany who had frequent business dealings in Russia.

When rejected by the United States, the Litvinenkos and Goldfarb then bought tickets to fly to Moscow via London. Since the flight was only stopping over in London to meet the connecting flight, Litvinenko did not need a visa to enter the United Kingdom. But once at Heathrow Airport, he sought asylum, which was eventually granted.

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