Russians charged over UK Novichok nerve agent attack
A counterfeit perfume bottle, a basic east London hotel and two burly Russians likely traveling under aliases: just some of the unprecedented details revealed by British authorities Wednesday of how they believe the Novichok poisonings in Salisbury were carried out.
The revelations came as British prosecutors said they had “sufficient evidence” to charge two Russian nationals in connection with the nerve agent attack in the southern English city on March 4 on former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia Skripal.
The two suspects were named by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, neither of whom is in the United Kingdom.
“Prosecutors from CPS Counter Terrorism Division have considered the evidence and have concluded there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction and it is clearly in the public interest to charge Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov … with conspiracy to murder Sergei Skripal and the attempted murder of Skripal, his daughter Yulia, and police officer Nick Bailey,” a CPS statement said.
The pair are also charged with the use and possession of the nerve agent Novichok contrary to the Chemical Weapons Act and causing grievous bodily harm with intent to Yulia Skripal and Nick Bailey.
The two Russian nationals are believed to have been traveling under aliases, although they had genuine Russian passports with the identities of Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, the CPS said in a briefing.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May told lawmakers that Britain believes the two suspects to be officers of the Russian military intelligence service, known as the GRU.
“The GRU is a highly disciplined organization with a well-established chain of command, so this was not a rogue operation, it was almost certainly also approved outside the GRU at a senior level of the Russian state,” she said in a statement to the House of Commons.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova dismissed the latest claims. “A link with Russia is being alleged. The names published in the media, like the photos, do not tell us anything,” she said.
She called on the British authorities “to move from public accusations and information manipulation to practical cooperation through law enforcement agencies” and repeated Russia’s demand that they answer Moscow’s queries about the case.
“The investigation of such serious crimes — which the UK side has repeatedly alleged — requires the most careful work, scrupulous analysis of data and close cooperation,” she said.
The CPS said it was not applying to Russia for the extradition of the two men as the Russian constitution does not permit extradition of its own nationals. However, prosecutors have obtained a European Arrest Warrant and the police are seeking to circulate Interpol Red Notices.
“Should either of these individuals ever again travel outside Russia, we will take every possible step to detain them, to extradite them and to bring them to face justice here in the United Kingdom,” May told lawmakers.
She described the Novichok attack as “part of a wider pattern of Russian behavior that persistently seeks to undermine our security and that of our allies around the world” and said the UK would “deploy the full range of tools from across our national security apparatus” to counter Russian military intelligence activities.
May spoke to US President Donald Trump on Tuesday evening ahead of the announcement of the names of Russian suspects and their links to military intelligence, 10 Downing Street told CNN.
The UN Security Council will meet Thursday to discuss the Salisbury developments, UK ambassador to the United Nations Karen Pierce said. A previous council meeting on the nerve agent attack featured heated exchanges between the Russian and UK envoys.
Hotel room ‘deemed safe’
New details from the police and prosecutors revealed that traces of Novichok were found in the hotel room where the two men spent two nights in March, the City Stay Hotel in Bow Road, east London.
Tests were carried out on May 4 on that room, said Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, National Lead for Counter Terrorism Policing, and it was “deemed safe.” There had been no reports to date of people falling ill between March and May after staying in the room, he added.
“The levels of Novichok we found in the room at the time of police sampling in May were such that they were not enough to cause short or long-term health effects to anyone exposed to it, at that point or thereafter,” he said.
Online reviews of the hotel give a mixed picture, with several reviewers faulting the cleanliness of the rooms while acknowledging it was competitively priced for the UK capital.
A statement issued Wednesday by the City Stay Hotel said it was open for business as usual. “We are fully supporting the police investigation. We are reassured that the police and Public Health England have confirmed very clearly that there is no health risk whatsoever to our guests or our staff,” it said.
Basu told reporters that the March 4 poisoning of the Skripals had now been formally linked by UK investigators to the June 30 poisoning of Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley, a couple living in Amesbury, near Salisbury. Sturgess died on July 8 as a result of her exposure to Novichok.
“It now forms one investigation,” he said. “We do not believe Dawn and Charlie were deliberately targeted, but became victims as a result of the recklessness in which such a toxic nerve agent was disposed of.
“We know that Novichok was applied to the Skripals’ front door in an area that is accessible to the public, which also endangered the lives of members of the public and emergency service responders.”
Rowley had told police that he found a box he thought contained perfume in a charity bin, Basu said.
“Inside the box was a bottle and applicator,” Basu said. “He tried to put the two parts together at his home address on Saturday, 30 June, and in doing so got some of the contents on himself. He said Dawn had applied some of the substance to her wrists before feeling unwell.”
Investigators found a pink box at his home labeled Nina Ricci Premier Jour, Basu said. This turned out to be fake.
“We have spoken to Nina Ricci and undertaken further inquiries. Nina Ricci and our inquiries have confirmed that it is not a genuine Nina Ricci perfume bottle, box or nozzle. It is in fact a counterfeit box, bottle and nozzle that have been especially adapted,” he said.
Police released a series of CCTV images they say show the two men, believed to be aged about 40, arriving at London Gatwick Airport on March 2 and in Salisbury on March 3 and 4. The final images show the men leaving from London Heathrow Airport in the evening of March 4.
Just before midday on March 4, Basu said, “CCTV shows them in the vicinity of Mr Skripal’s house and we believe that they contaminated the front door with Novichok.” Police say this footage was captured “moments before the attack.”
The trip on March 3 appears to have been for reconnaissance purposes, police said. They also released images of the two men taken from their travel documents.
Basu appealed for anyone who knew the two men or saw them while they were in the United Kingdom in March to get in touch. Police became aware of the men by name in May, he said.
The update from the CPS and police came a day after the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international watchdog, confirmed that the nerve agent that killed Sturgess and sickened Rowley in Amesbury was the same one that was used to poison the Skripals, although it did not name the substance.
UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt on Tuesday said the OPCW report had confirmed the UK government’s assessment.
“The recklessness of the Russian state in bringing a nerve agent in to the UK, and total disregard for the safety of the public, is appalling and irresponsible,” he said.
Russia has issued a denial of involvement both to the United Kingdom and to the OPCW.
Moscow has repeatedly accused the UK government of refusing to cooperate in the investigation, as well as stirring up a politically motivated campaign to vilify Russia.