Five Years On, Alexander Litvinenko’s Widow Continues Her Quest for Justice

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Alexander Litvinenko is pictured at the Intensive Care Unit of University College Hospital on November 20, 2006 in London, England. The 43-year-old former KGB spy who died on November 23, 2006, accused Russian President Vladimir Putin in the involvement of his death. (Photo: Natasja Weitsz / Getty Images)

In November 2006, as ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko lay dying of radioactive poisoning, his wife Marina held a bedside vigil. At first doctors at his London hospital blamed an E. coli infection for Litvinenko’s yellowing skin, sunken eyes and dramatic weight loss. But Marina sensed something more sinister. “We asked many times for them to check him for poisoning and they looked at us like we were crazy,” she says. By Nov. 13—his eleventh day in hospital—Litvinenko could barely open his mouth and the tissue lining his throat was severely inflamed. “He said, ‘Why can’t the doctors help? Why can’t they give me some medicine to make me feel better?’” Marina tried to calm him down by rubbing his head. “I realized that all of his hair had come off in my hand,” she says. “That’s when I started to scream.”

Five years later Marina is still making noise. Last month she won the right to a full inquest that will investigate the circumstances that led her late husband to swallow polonium-210, the rare, radioactive isotope—produced almost exclusively in Russia—that killed him over the course of 22 days. Scheduled for early 2012, and following further inquiries by British intelligence agencies MI-5 and MI-6, the inquest will hear testimony for the first time that Moscow carried out the successful, albeit severely bungled, assassination. Getting justice for Sasha, as she calls her murdered husband, drove her to request the hearing. “But it’s not only my case,” she says. “Seven hundred people were contaminated in the streets of London. Why shouldn’t we know why and how polonium was here?”

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The toxic trail that investigators have already uncovered smacks of a Cold War thriller. On Nov. 1, 2006—five years ago today—Litvinenko traveled to the Millennium Hotel in central London for a meeting with Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun, two former KGB agents. According to Scotland Yard, Lugovoi slipped polonium into Litvinenko’s green tea. By midnight he was vomiting every half hour. “He said the tea wasn’t tasty and it was cold,” Marina remembers. “It was as if it wasn’t immediately prepared and had been waiting for him.” On his deathbed, Litvinenko—an outspoken critic of the Kremlin who received political asylum in Britain in 2001—accused Vladimir Putin, then Russia’s president, of orchestrating his death. “You may succeed in silencing one man,” he recited to a friend who sat at his bedside. “But the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life.”

Subsequent investigations by Britain’s anti-terrorist unit revealed that Lugovoi and Kovtun had left trails of polonium in and out of the country. Authorities traced the radioactive substance to an apartment in Hamburg, Germany where Kovtun is thought to have stayed prior to visiting London; to Lugovoi’s London hotel room; and to Lugovoi’s plane seat. By May 28, 2007, British officials had named Lugovoi the chief suspect and requested his extradition. Moscow called it nonsense and claimed that London was politicizing the situation. As a further show of support for Lugovoi, Putin appointed him to the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament. “Why did he receive this? He was nobody,” Marina says, still disgusted. “Nobody knew about him. His name became known only after England asked for his extradition.”

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Marina Litvinenko, the wife of the former Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko, speaks to a television news crew as she arrives at St Pancras Coroner's Court in London, Thursday, October 13, 2011. (Photo: Matt Dunham / AP)

The Litvinenkos first met Lugovoi at a birthday party held for exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky in January 2006. Litvinenko, who had been consulting for MI-5 and MI-6 since 2005, hoped to set up a security firm with Lugovoi, a former bodyguard. “It was not friendship. It was business,” says Marina, who remembers Lugovoi as being “quiet” and “quite bland.” On Nov. 24, the day after Litvinenko’s death, she received a voicemail from Lugovoi that seemed to respond to the media speculation about his involvement. “He said, ‘Marina. I don’t know what has happened, but you have to know it’s not me. I will try to find the truth.’” She never heard from him again. “Why has he refused to come to an English court? Is he afraid that someone will kill him or torture him?” she asks. “Just come to England, clear your name, and after that we can talk about it.”

Fallout over the case cast a deep chill on British-Russian relations that is only now beginning to thaw. In September, David Cameron became the first Prime Minister to visit Russia since British intelligence officials suggested the Russian state had played a part in Litvinenko’s poisoning. (According to Marina, her husband fell out with Putin in 1998 after he tried to expose corruption within the Federal Security Service, which Putin headed at the time.) Speaking at a joint press conference held with Cameron on Sept. 12, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev made it clear Lugovoi won’t be packing his bags for London. “That will never happen – no matter what the circumstances,” he said, noting that the Russian constitution prohibits the extradition of Russian citizens to foreign countries.

Marina understands that kickstarting relations with Russia could be a boon for British interests. But she worries that by making the first move to mend relations Cameron is giving Russia the upper hand politically—and slowly losing sight of Sasha. William Hague, the U.K.’s Foreign Secretary, phoned her ahead of Cameron’s visit to dispel that notion. “Hague said, ‘You can be sure we will never forget about your husband.’ It was a normal, human conversation, and it’s a good feeling to know this,” she says. “But it will change nothing with my case. No Lugovoi. No justice.” That reality compelled Marina to call for the inquest, which she has delayed doing at the behest of Scotland Yard for years.

But getting answers comes at a price. Funding the complicated inquest could cost Marina hundreds of thousands of dollars, and she recently launched an appeal for donations. For a woman eager to move on, however, closure justifies all the strain. “I hate this word ‘widow.’ If I finish this case, maybe I can do something different with my life,” she says. “I’ll become somebody else, not just a woman whose husband died in this way. I’d like to be my own person.”

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William Lee Adams is a staff writer at the London bureau of TIME. Find him on Twitter at @willyleeadams or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.