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Skripal case: Russia counter-attacks; Britain responds by tightening access to Yulia Skripal

Britain struggles to respond to Russia’s diplomatic counter-offensive, stonewalls all Russian attempts to gain access to Yulia Skripal

If during the first three weeks of the Skripal crisis it was the British who made the running, over the last two weeks the initiative has slowly shifted to the Russians.

As is often the way, the Russians – caught by surprise by a crisis that seemed to come out of nowhere – initially responded reactively.

However as the weeks have passed they have gradually found their footing, and are now starting to score points.

By contrast it is the British – who apparently assumed that following the diplomatic expulsions the crisis would subside – who now look increasingly on the blackfoot as, contrary to their expectations, the Russians refuse to let the matter rest.

The result has been bitter recriminations in the British media – with much of the blame being placed on Boris Johnson – a flood of not always very consistent or convincing leaks to the media trying to bolster the British case, and ever more shrill denunciations of the supposedly ‘useful idiots’ who express doubts about it.

With hindsight the Russians took one step in the early days of the crisis which has paid handsome dividends.

This was their insistence – made as early as the UN Security Council session of 14th March 2018 – that Britain follow the procedures of the Chemical Weapons Convention and obtain confirmation from the OPCW of the nature of the poison used in the attack.

The Russians followed this up by convening a meeting of the OPCW’s executive committee on 4th April 2018 at which they presented a resolution which jointly sponsored by Russia, China and Iran for an international investigation of the incident, with law enforcement agencies from Britain and Russia both involved in the investigation.

This is by no means an absurd or outlandish proposal.  On the contrary since Yulia Skripal is a Russian citizen it is precisely what should have happened.

However – as the Russians of course know – the OPCW has no jurisdiction to impose an international investigation of a crime which has happened in a sovereign state.  That is a matter solely within the jurisdiction of that state, and the OPCW – which is not an investigative body –  has no authority to order it.  The only international institution which does is the UN Security Council.

There was no possibility therefore of the Russian-Chinese-Iranian proposal being adopted, or of  being put into effect if it was adopted, and the Russians – and the Chinese and the Iranians – must have known this when they proposed it.

However the Russian insistence that the OPCW become involved and verify the British claim that the poison used in the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal was a Novichok, together with the Russians’ call for an international investigation of the incident, and the lists of questions with which in advance of the OPCW executive council session the Russians bombarded the OPCW, the British, and the French – whose experts the British consulted to verify the identity of the poison – set the scene for the admission by Gary Aitkenhead, Porton Down’s chief executive, that contrary to British Foreign Office claims Porton Down has not been able to confirm that the chemical which poisoned Sergey and Yulia Skripal was made in Russia.

Ever since then, because British diplomats – not just Boris Johnson – have for weeks been lying about this, the British have been on the defensive.

As it happens the OPCW executive council session, like the UN Security Council session which Russia called shortly after, also demonstrated another important fact.

This is that the Skripal crisis is an East-West confrontation  – the West versus the Eurasian powers led by Russia and China – and not a confrontation between a ‘united world community’ and an ‘isolated Russia’, as British and other Western commentators like to claim.

It seems that all the sixteen states who at the OPCW executive council session voted against the Russian-Chinese-Iranian proposal for an international investigation of the incident are members of the Western alliance, whilst the six countries which voted for the proposal are all Eurasian states.  Importantly all seventeen of the states which chose to abstain in the voting appear to have been non-aligned states.

The pattern repeated itself at the subsequent UN Security Council meeting on the following day, 5th April 2018.

Not only were Western ambassadors the only ambassadors pointing fingers at Russia during the meeting, but those non-aligned non-Western ambassadors who chose to speak during the meeting not only did not point fingers at Russia but appeared if anything to favour the Russian position: that the mysteries of the Skripal case be solved internationally by way of cooperation between Britain and Russia.

The comments of the ambassador of Equatorial Guinea – no ally of Russia – as summarised by the United Nations Press Office, may serve as a typical example

ANATOLIO NDONG MBA (Equatorial Guinea) expressed hope that current investigations would both shed light on the facts and be fair and commensurate with relevant international norms and procedures.  He reiterated a desire that, as permanent members of the Council, the Russian Federation and the United Kingdom would set an example to the international community on the peaceful resolution of disputes.  At a pivotal moment when international institutions were under constant attack, it was important the two members used their maturity and international political experience to handle the situation prudently, he said, hoping the diplomatic crisis that had broken out would soon be defused.

If Gary Aitkenhead’s admission that Porton Down cannot confirm that the chemical agent used in the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal was Russian made has been a public relations disaster for the British, the British authorities’ treatment of Sergey and Yulia Skripal looks increasingly like a public relations disaster waiting to happen.

The British authorities have maintained the tightest possible security around Sergey and Yulia Skripal. No photographs of them have been released and nor has any information been provided about the sort of treatment they are receiving.  So far as is known they have been seen by no visitors.  Access to them is tightly controlled.

The recent High Court Judgment permitting blood samples to be taken from Sergey and Yulia Skripal so that they could be passed on to the OPCW revealed that the British authorities had previously taken blood samples from Sergey and Yulia Skripal, which were passed on to Porton Down.

(2) …….on 14 and 16 March 2018 the UK government issued a formal invitation to the Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to send a team of experts to the United Kingdom ‘to assist in the technical evaluation of unscheduled chemicals in accordance with Article VIII 38(e).’ This in effect is to independently verify the analysis carried out by Porton Down. In order to conduct their enquiries the OPCW wish to

i)  Collect fresh blood samples from Mr and Ms Skripal to

a)  Undertake their own analysis in relation to evidence of nerve agents,

b)  conduct DNA analysis to confirm the samples originally tested by Porton Down are from Mr and Ms Skripal,

ii)  Analyse the medical records of Mr and Ms Skripal setting out their treatment since 4 March 2018,

iii)  Re-test the samples already analysed by Porton Down.

(3) Because Mr Skripal and Ms Skripal are unconscious and neither are in a position to consent to the taking of further blood samples for these purposes or to the disclosure of their medical records Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust have quite properly confirmed to the UK Government that a court order would be required to authorise (a) and (b) above.

(bold italics added)

There is no hint here of any previous permission being obtained from the High Court to take these blood samples.  This is so, even though Mr. Justice Williams clearly says in his Judgment that such permission should be obtained

(3) Because Mr Skripal and Ms Skripal are unconscious and neither are in a position to consent to the taking of further blood samples for these purposes or to the disclosure of their medical records Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust have quite properly confirmed to the UK Government that a court order would be required to authorise (a) and (b) above

(4) Thus the Secretary of State has applied to this court for personal welfare orders in respect of Mr and Ms Skripal under the provisions of the Mental Capacity Act 2005 seeking determinations that it is lawful for the NHS Trust to take a blood sample for provision to the OPCW and to disclose the relevant medical records to the OPCW and for the blood samples taken from Mr and Ms Skripal to be subjected to testing by the OPCW.

(bold italics added)

Was permission obtained from the High Court before the blood samples sent to Porton Down were taken from Sergey and Yulia Skripal?

If not, then was the taking of the earlier blood samples unlawful, perhaps an assault, which is a criminal offence?

If permission was obtained why has the High Court’s Judgment granting this permission not been made public?  What made it different from the Judgment of Mr. Justice Williams, which was made public?

Or could it be that no permission was needed because at the time when the blood samples were taken Sergey and Yulia Skripal were conscious and could therefore give their consent to have the samples taken?

Or might it be that it was judged at the time that the taking of the blood samples did not require the High Court’s permission because it was a necessary part of the medical treatment with which Sergey and Yulia Skripal were being provided?  If so why is nothing said about this in Mr. Justice Williams’s Judgment?

Speaking as someone who has read many court Judgments, I strongly suspect that no previous permission was obtained from the High Court when the previous blood samples were taken.  Had it been I would have expected Mr. Justice Williams in his very careful Judgment to mention it.

One way or the other I would be interested to have an explanation about this.

Publication of the High Court Judgment was followed shortly after by the sudden and unexpected announcement that Yulia Skripal was recovering well and had regained consciousness.

That the two events – the publication of the Judgment and the announcement of Yulia Skripal’s recovery – might be linked, I have suggested previously

Now that the Russian consular authorities know of the Court proceedings concerning Yulia Skripal which have been underway it would in theory be open to them to instruct lawyers to apply for them to be joined as a party to those proceedings so that they can represent Yulia Skripal in them.

I have no idea whether they are considering doing so, but I do frankly wonder whether the sudden announcement of Yulia Skripal’s recovery – welcome news that it is – might also in part have been intended to forestall such a step by the Russian consular authorities on the grounds that Yulia Skripal is now in a position to make her own decisions.

Predictably enough, the announcement of Yulia Skripal’s recovery led to renewed Russian demands for consular access to her.  The British have however failed to grant such access without saying clearly why.

Meanwhile photographs of Yulia Skripal have still not appeared.  There is still no information about the treatment she is receiving.  She still appears to have seen no visitors.  There is no public word of any law firm representing her though the need for her to be provided with legal assistance – and to be allowed to consult with lawyers – is obvious.

Her cousin Viktoria Skripal has had only one telephone conversation with her that we know of, which she recorded.

As I have discussed previously, the impression provided by the transcript of the conversation is of Yulia Skripal being someone who feels very constrained in what she is either able or willing to say.

She does however know in advance that Viktoria Skripal’s request for a visa to come to Britain to see her is going to be refused (some British media outlets apparently deleted these words when they published the transcript).

That Viktoria Skripal’s request for a visa to come to Britain has been refused has now been confirmed by the BBC

Meanwhile, the UK has refused to grant a visa to Yulia’s cousin, Viktoria Skripal, the BBC has learned.

The Home Office said the application did not comply with immigration rules. A government source told the BBC it appears Russia is “trying to use Viktoria as a pawn”…..

Viktoria later told the BBC she did not have enough money in her bank account to satisfy the visa requirements.

The Guardian has provided further details of what “the government source” said about Viktoria Skripal

“It appears the Russian state is trying to use Victoria as a pawn,” a government source told the BBC, adding: “If she is being influenced or coerced by the Kremlin, she has become another victim.”

(bold italics added)

It looks as if the claim that Viktoria Skripal has insufficient money in her bank account to be granted a visa is just a pretext.

Just as her cousin Yulia Skripal told her, the British authorities have no intention of granting her a visa, not because she has insufficient money in her bank account but because they consider her to be “a pawn of the Russian government” (whatever that means).

Why that should prevent her from seeing her cousin, who is seriously ill, is left unexplained.

Incidentally I wonder whether the fact that the British authorities consider Viktoria Skripal to be “a pawn of the Russian government” also explains why she has been denied any role in the legal proceedings which affect her cousin, to the point where the British authorities appear to have failed even to inform Mr. Justice Williams of her existence?

All in all it appears that the British authorities are determined to prevent anyone from Russia – even members of Yulia Skripal’s family – from having contact with her.

That presumably accounts for the strange statement published in Yulia Skripal’s name by the British authorities in what looks like a rushed reaction to Viktoria Skripal’s publication of the transcript of her conversation with Yulia Skripal.

This statement – written in perfect idiomatic British English – appears to be intended to justify blocking access to her – either by the Russian authorities or by members of her family or by anyone such as a lawyer who might be acting on their behalf.

One effect of publication of the transcript of Yulia Skripal’s conversation with Viktoria Skripal has been that it has forced the British authorities to confirm that what Yulia Skripal told Viktoria Skripal during their conversation – that Sergey Skripal is not only alive but is also recovering – is true.

Directly after publication of the transcript I wrote that its contents appeared to suggest this, and now the British authorities themselves have been forced to confirm it.

In other words, just as publication of Mr. Justice Williams’s Judgment seems to have forced the British authorities to admit that Yulia Skripal is recovering and conscious, so Viktoria Skripal’s publication of the transcript of her telephone conversation with Yulia Skripal seems to have forced the British authorities to admit that Sergey Skripal is alive and recovering well.

Frankly the timing of these announcements, and the extraordinary secrecy about every aspect of the treatment and condition of Sergey and Yulia Skripal since they were first found on the bench, only reinforces the impression that the British authorities are in effect controlling them, and that they are being kept in a condition which looks suspiciously like detention.

Perhaps this is all being done in good faith and for their protection.

However John Helmer for one says that

The evidence now accumulating is that the hospital is detaining and isolating the Skripals against their will, preventing contact with their family.

(bold italics added)

He makes a compelling case.

With the collapse of the Novichok evidence Sergey and Yulia Skripal are now key witnesses in the case.

Perhaps they have nothing of value to say.  It is striking that a week after Yulia Skripal recovered consciousness the British police have still not identified a suspect, which suggests that her knowledge of the facts behind the attack is limited.

However in the meantime the Russians are stating what many people will doubtless see as the obvious

That the Russians may have a point is strongly suggested by the following very interesting words in this interesting article by the Guardian’s diplomatic editor Patrick Wintour, which appeared on 30th March 2018, shortly after news of Yulia Skripal’s recovery was made public

Russia has also responded to the apparent recovery of Yulia Skripal, who was poisoned alongside her father. She may be able to provide insights into how the poisoning occurred, or even reveal whether she knows of some other motive by some other non-state actor.

The British intelligence services will be debriefing her as soon as her health permits. It would clearly be a huge embarrassment for the UK government if it emerged she believed the Russian state was not involved.

(bold italics added)

Perhaps it was not just rhetoric from Russia’s UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzia when he warned the British at the UN Security Council meeting on 5th April 2018

……that they were playing with fire and would be sorry.   Politicians in the United Kingdom had no idea that their hyped-up statements might boomerang back at them.

Does Nebenzia and the Russian government know more than they are saying?  Perhaps there are more surprises ahead in this strange affair.

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