Russian whistleblower died of natural causes, coroner rules

A campaigner has branded a police force “incompetent” after a coroner found a Russian whistleblower died of natural causes, in the absence of evidence he was poisoned.

Multi-millionaire Alexander Perepilichnyy, 44, collapsed and died while jogging near his home in Weybridge, Surrey, on November 10 2012 after spending the night with his mistress in Paris.

Coroner Nicholas Hilliard QC has been examining whether the married businessman could have been murdered with poison or died of sudden arrhythmic death syndrome (Sads).

In his conclusion, 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 am satisfied that Mr Perepilichnyy was unlikely to have been poisoned taking into account all the evidence that we 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.”

Immediately afterwards, anti-corruption campaigner Bill Browder highlighted police failings, saying: “The judge was working on a puzzle with only 20% of the pieces because of the Surrey Police incompetence in investigating.”

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

Mr Perepilichnyy 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.

He had been helping UK-based Mr Browder’s Hermitage Capital Investment expose a 230 million US dollar (£142 million in November 2012) money-laundering operation, the inquest was told.

The father-of-two died before he could give evidence against the alleged fraudsters who had targeted Hermitage.

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.

There was only a “limited search of the scene so any potentially incriminating evidence was missed and police failed to follow up house-to-house calls at properties where no-one was home.

Only a “very limited” amount of CCTV was viewed from two of the six entrances to the St George’s Hill estate where Mr Perepilichnyy lived, Mr Hilliard said.

The handset of Mr Perepilichnyy’s second mobile phone was never obtained and data from his computer was lost.

On why Surrey Police did not treat the death as suspicious at first, Mr Hilliard said: “Faced with a middle-aged man in jogging clothes at the top of a steep hill, it is unsurprising those officers (at the scene) came to this view.”

He told the court that 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: “One significant lost opportunity was the absence of an early forensic post-mortem examination”.

However, Mr Hilliard said there was “no direct evidence Mr Perepilichnyy was murdered”.

Mr Hilliard told the inquest at the Old Bailey there was an “obvious” motive of those behind the fraud on Hermitage to stop Mr Perepilichnyy from giving evidence against them in Switzerland.

However, the alleged fraudster Vladlen Stepanov never had a visa to enter the UK, he said.

Even though Andrei Pavlov, who Mr Perepilichnyy had two meetings with, was in Britain until November 11 2012, there was no evidence to suggest he was an “assassin”.

The court heard Swiss authorities had referred to the deaths of three witnesses in the fraud case.

The court heard that Mr Perepilichnyy was not a high-profile critic of the Kremlin, unlike others who were obviously 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 the most likely causes were either poisoning or Sads, which claims between 800 and 1,500 lives in the UK each year.

He told the Old Bailey: “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 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.

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