Inquest into death of Russian warned of perils of conspiracy theories

Updated: 

A coroner examining the death of a wealthy Russian whistleblower has warned of the danger of getting "caught up in conspiracy theories".

The inquest into the death of Alexander Perepilichnyy is looking at whether he died from natural causes or was poisoned before he collapsed while out jogging near his home in Weybridge, Surrey, in November 2012.

At the time, the 44-year-old father-of-two was allegedly helping specialist investment firm Hermitage Capital Management uncover a 230 million US dollar (£150 million) Russian money-laundering operation.

He had also recently taken out £3.5 million worth of life insurance and applied for another £5 million worth of policies, the inquest at the Old Bailey has heard.

Robert Moxon Browne, for insurer Legal And General, grilled a senior police officer about his lines of inquiry, and why he did not focus more attention on Russian criminal gangs and the Hermitage affair.

But Detective Superintendent Ian Pollard, of Surrey Police, maintained he did not think Mr Perepilichnyy was under threat and he found no link to foreign crime gangs.

The officer denied there was a feeling among the team that inquiries were the "product of a conspiracy theory".

Coroner Nicholas Hilliard QC commented: "Anyone can get caught up in a conspiracy theory, wherever they come from, whoever is the subject of them." 

Mr Pollard agreed.

The officer also confirmed that during an initial post-mortem examination, the contents of Mr Perepilichnyy's stomach were disposed of, although a "limited" amount was recovered for a second autopsy.

Mr Moxon Browne asked if he was aware that a man connected with the Klyuev organised crime group had left the UK the day after Mr Perepilichnyy's death.

Mr Pollard said it was not something he knew about at the time of his investigation.

He told the court that he did not want his investigation to go off at a "tangent" looking into Russian crime gangs but "not because I was warned off or told not to pursue it".

In the absence of evidence Mr Perepilichnyy had been murdered, he was not prepared to send any officers to Russia to look for suspects, he said.

Mr Pollard confirmed he never spoke to William Browder, co-founder and chief executive of Hermitage, saying he "didn't need to" as he spoke to his representatives.

He said "extensive" intelligence inquiries by Serious Organised Crime Agency, counter terrorism and Special Branch uncovered no information to suggest the businessman was at risk of harm, threat or retribution or that he was linked to organised crime groups in Ukraine or Russia.

But Mr Moxon Browne said: "All the information you have been given from Mr Browder and Hermitage, apparently not pursued, indicated Mr Perepilichnyy was intimately involved in the activities of an organised crime group.

"Is your position you did not think Mr Perepilichnyy was under any threat?

Mr Pollard replied: "That's my position, yes."

In the days before his death, married Mr Perepilichnyy had stayed at the Bristol hotel in Paris with another woman, the inquest heard.

Officers made inquiries about the woman and attempts were made to contact her for information, Mr Pollard said.

Credit cards revealed the deceased had spent hundreds of pounds on hotels and meals for two, with the greatest single transaction totalling more than £1,800.

Inquiries were made at the Bristol hotel and police were informed they no longer had any CCTV footage from their stay.

Mr Pollard said he had determined there would be "no useful inquiries to be conducted in Paris" so did not pursue any more information about the French connection.

Henrietta Hill QC, for Hermitage, said: "You will have seen reports late last night on BuzzFeed?"

Mr Pollard said he had not seen them.

Ms Hill said the report suggested French authorities had tried to seek assistance from British counterparts as they tried to investigate whether Mr Perepilichnyy was poisoned on his trip to Paris.

She said they were told the death was "not suspicious" and were refused help, according to the report.

Mr Pollard said: "I have not had any contact to French authorities."

Ms Hill said: "But we do know that the French themselves had initially made contact before you tried to make inquiries at the Bristol hotel?"

The officer replied: "Not that I recall. I think the inquiries were instigated at our request."

Ms Hill challenged Mr Pollard's assertion there was no link to Russian criminal groups.

She highlighted an Interpol request from Moscow for information on whether Mr Perepilichnyy held any property in the UK.

She said the request made it clear he was "suspected of fraud, money laundering and abuse of power", and had allegedly "organised a criminal gang to misappropriate money".

Mr Pollard said the deceased was only "suspected" of fraud.