Dawn Sturgess inquest: Why deciding scope was controversial

Dawn Sturgess inquest: Why deciding scope was controversial

How and why Novichok got to Salisbury, who brought it and on whose orders, will all be considered at the inquest into Dawn Sturgess’ death, a coroner has ruled.

What should and shouldn’t be examined while looking into the Salisbury mum’s death has proved controversial.

Today’s (March 30) decision to broaden the scope of the inquest matters.

For the people of the city, it may be the only official process putting the events of the Salisbury poisonings under detailed scrutiny.

Some answers may never be known but what goes down on the official record will feel significant to anyone affected by the events of 2018, most of all the family and friends of Dawn.

Start of inquest process

Dawn Sturgess, 44, died on July 8, 2018 after spraying herself with the nerve agent Novichok, which had been used to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia on March 4.

The substance was contained in a perfume bottle given to her by her then partner Charlie Rowley at his Amesbury flat on June 30.

Both fell ill shortly afterwards and were taken to Salisbury District Hospital but while Mr Rowley later recovered, Ms Sturgess never regained consciousness.

Areas of the city faced deep cleans, amid fears Novichok traces could put others at risk. There were months of uncertainty.

Today (March 30), a pre-inquest review was held at the Royal Courts of Justice in London to establish what the scope of the inquest into Dawn’s death should be and whether the role played by Russia in the Salisbury poisonings should be part of it.

Scope was wrongly narrowed

David Ridley, the senior coroner for Wiltshire, had been initially appointed to hear the inquest.

Salisbury Journal: Muggleton Road after Charlie Rowley's flat was demolished. Picture by Spencer MulhollandMuggleton Road after Charlie Rowley’s flat was demolished. Picture by Spencer Mulholland

Mr Ridley had agreed to look into who was responsible for her death, so long as the issue wouldn’t go beyond the “acts and omissions” of Russian nationals Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov (later identified as likely to have the real names Dr Alexander Mishkin and Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga respectively by investigative news website Bellingcat) – the pair believed to have carried out the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal.

He had ruled out trying to establish the involvement of other members of the Russian state or where Novichok had come from.

His ruling was successfully challenged by Dawn’s family by way of judicial review and with High Court judges ruling Mr Ridley had wrongly narrowed the scope of the inquest.

However, whether or not the issue of wider Russian state responsibility should be investigated remained a complex one to deal with.

The arguments for

During Tuesday’s pre-inquest review, Andrew O’Connor QC, counsel to the inquest, argued that “any investigation into the conduct of Petrov and Boshirov will be artificial and incomplete if it does not extend to consider issues relating to the source of the Novichok and wider questions of Russian state responsibility”.

He said: “Our submission is that the investigation … should encompass not only the conduct of Mr Petrov and Mr Boshirov, but also the source of the Novichok and wider Russian state responsibility.

“Where did the Novichok come from?

“Who sent those two men to Salisbury and with what instructions?

“And at what level was that decision approved?”

He said there was “very significant public interest in exposing the full facts of these matters”, adding: “This is likely to be the only opportunity to do so, forensically, in a legal forum.”

Salisbury Journal: Suspects Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov. Picture by Metropolitan Police via Getty ImagesSuspects Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov. Picture by Metropolitan Police via Getty Images

The arguments against

Baroness Heather Hallett, the coroner for the new inquest, considered the arguments for a broader scope against those from Cathryn McGahey QC, the counsel for the Home Secretary.

She argued the purpose of the inquest was to answer four questions: who the deceased was, how, when and where they came by their death.

Although she accepted that any investigation “is almost bound to stretch more widely than it is strictly required”, considering issues such as the protection of the Skripals and the former spy’s links to intelligence agencies fell outside scope, Ms McGahey said.

“On the matter of the poisonings, it would essentially be an investigation into Russian hostile state action, potentially globally, and that is way beyond the scope, in my submission, of any inquest,” Lady Hallett was told.

Ms McGahey also brought up issues with practicality, arguing that “there would be absolutely no point in this inquest trying to cobble together pieces of information here in the UK and trying to reach conclusions from it.

“While I have absolutely no inside knowledge in this respect, it does seem very unlikely that this inquest would be able to obtain the full details from the police or other security agency investigations into deaths that occurred in other jurisdictions or attacks, or alleged attacks in other jurisdictions.”

Coroner’s ruling

After hearing arguments from both sides, Lady Hallet ruled that the provisional scope of the 44-year-old’s inquest will also examine where the nerve agent came from, how and why it was brought to Salisbury, who brought it and whose directives they were following.  

Outlining the provisional scope of the inquest, the coroner said: “To my mind, there is very considerable force in submissions made by Mr O’Connor that to conduct an investigation into the death of Dawn Sturgess without investigating how Novichok got to be in Salisbury, and then in Amesbury, how or why it was brought to this country, who brought it and who directed them – this would be an incomplete and potentially misleading investigation.”

Lady Hallett’s decision is preliminary and will depend on the disclosure of evidence.

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