Police under fire for ‘incompetence’ over Russian whistle-blower death

A coroner found a Russian whistle-blower died of natural causes rather than poisoning after bungling police provided just “20%” of the “puzzle”, a campaigner has said.

Surrey Police came under fire for its initial investigation after multi-millionaire Alexander Perepilichnyy, 44, collapsed and died while jogging near his home in Weybridge, Surrey, on November 10 2012.

Coroner Nicholas Hilliard QC identified a number of police failings but concluded Mr Perepilichnyy died of sudden arrhythmic death syndrome (Sads).

He said: “I do not think I can completely eliminate all possibility he was poisoned, although I regard it unlikely on all the evidence I have heard.

“I’m satisfied that I can properly and safely conclude that it is more likely than not he had died from natural causes, namely Sads.”

Around the time of his death, Mr Perepilichnyy had been helping UK-based Bill Browder’s Hermitage Capital Investment expose a 230 million US dollar (£142 million in November 2012) money-laundering operation.

Mr Browder, who has campaigned for anti-corruption laws to crack down on international criminals, blamed police for failing to find out how the married father-of-two died.

Speaking at the Old Bailey after the ruling, he said: “The judge was working on a puzzle with only 20% of the pieces because of the Surrey Police incompetence in investigating.”

Mr Browder went on: “They lost the stomach samples. They lost the computer files of Perepilichnyy, they lost financial records, never treated it as a crime scene and as a result he (the coroner) could not come to any conclusions about what happened up there.

“He could not get any direct evidence because police did not do an investigation.

“I do not know how he was murdered, there’s no way we can without a proper investigation.”

Mr Browder said he was determined not to give up, saying he would “work on this politically”.

Bill Browder
Bill Browder criticised Surrey Police (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

He added: “(Russian President Vladimir) Putin cannot be allowed to send his people here and the authorities sweep it under the carpet.”

Detective Chief Superintendent John Boshier, of Surrey Police, said: “We accept that some organisational failings were made in the early stages.”

The inquest heard evidence that Mr Perepilichnyy had faced threats in the months before his death and had taken out millions of pounds in life insurance.

He had recently fought off a legal challenge by a debt recovery firm allegedly led by a prime suspect in the Alexander Litvinenko poison case, Dmitry Kovtun.

But he died before he could give evidence against his former private banking clients, who he had claimed had targeted Hermitage companies for the tax fraud.

The coroner said Mr Perepilichnyy’s death was not initially treated as suspicious at the scene as no-one reported any ill effects or concerns.

As a result, no forensic post-mortem examination was done until 18 days later and Mr Perepilichnyy’s stomach contents were thrown away before it could be tested for poison.

Detective Chief Superintendent John Boshier
Detective Chief Superintendent John Boshier said organisational failings were made (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

Had police looked “carefully” they could have found an article linking Mr Perepilichnyy to the alleged fraud and that he was “hiding in London”, the coroner said.

Despite extensive toxicology tests, no poison was identified in the Russian’s body, although experts refused to rule it out.

Mr Hilliard said those behind the fraud on Hermitage had an “obvious” motive to stop Mr Perepilichnyy from giving evidence against them at an upcoming hearing in Switzerland.

Mr Perepilichnyy was not a high-profile critic of the Kremlin, unlike others who were previously murdered.

Mr Hilliard said he received a letter on Tuesday from the Metropolitan Police counter-terrorism unit confirming they “are not conducting an investigation into Mr Perepilichnyy’s death” at the hands of a “hostile” agent.

Mr Hilliard said: “There is nothing that points significantly towards poisoning rather than Sads. And there is nothing significantly that points away from poisoning and towards Sads.

“Whatever happened to Mr Perepilichnyy, it was highly unusual and in reality it was poisoning or Sads.”

In the two days before his death, Mr Perepilichnyy, who was worth £50 million, had been on a romantic break in Paris with his ex-model girlfriend Elmira Medynska, 28, and had vomited after eating fish during their last supper.

While he may have suffered from food poisoning, the coroner said it did not contribute to his death the next day, after he went home.

The coroner said Mr Perepilichnyy had eaten sorrel soup for lunch on the day of his death. It was prepared by his wife, who also ate some but suffered no ill-effects.

Mr Hilliard rejected claims in a BuzzFeed article that Mr Perepilichnyy was murdered on the orders of Mr Putin or those close to him.

And the allegation British authorities were involved in covering it up for the sake of Russian relations did not bear scrutiny in the light of the Skripal poisoning.

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