UK: Nerve agent attack on ex-spy was ‘brazen and reckless’

Photo showing members of UK emergency services in green biohazard suits work where a Russian ex-spy and his daughter were found on Mar. 4, in critical condition in Salisbury, southern England, Mar 8, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 08 March 2018
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UK: Nerve agent attack on ex-spy was ‘brazen and reckless’

LONDON: Whoever attacked a former Russian spy with a rare nerve agent is guilty of a “brazen and reckless act,” and Britain’s government will act on it without hesitation when it becomes clear who is responsible, the minister in charge of domestic security said Thursday.
British Home Secretary Amber Rudd told the House of Commons that enormous resources are being used to determine who is responsible for poisoning Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter, Yulia, 33. The pair were found unconscious on a bench in the city of Salisbury on Sunday, triggering a police investigation that is being led by counterterrorism detectives.
“The use of a nerve agent on British soil is a brazen and reckless act,” she said. “This was attempted murder in the most cruel and public way. People are right to want to know who to hold to account. But if we are to be rigorous in this investigation we must avoid speculation and allow the police to carry on their investigation.”
While police have refused to speculate on who is behind the attack, many have focused on Russia because of the case’s similarity to the 2006 killing of another former Russian spy who was poisoned in London with radioactive polonium-210. A public inquiry found that Russia was responsible for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, and that President Vladimir Putin probably approved it.
Skripal and his daughter are in critical but stable condition at a hospital in Salisbury. A police officer who came to their aid is in a serious but stable condition, though he is conscious and talking, Rudd said.
The Russian government has denied any involvement in the Litvinenko killing or the attempted murder of Skripal, a former Russian agent who had served jail time in his homeland for spying for Britain before being freed in a spy swap.
Rudd said the “government will act without hesitation as the facts become clearer.”
In an interview with the BBC, Rudd refused to speculate about what nerve agent may have been used, but she confirmed that it was a “very rare” toxic substance.
The rarity of the material buttresses suggestions that a state actor was involved.
Chemical weapons expert Richard Guthrie of the research project CBW Events, which records the use of chemical and biological weapons, said the highly public attack appears to be “an expression of power” intended to send a message.
“There’s echoes of Litvinenko — you are doing it in a way that makes it obvious you’re doing it,” he said.
Russia is “obviously a clear candidate,” but it is too soon to say who was behind the attack, Guthrie added.
“It’s also possible there could be some troublemaker out there who wants to make it look like it was Russia,” he said.
Nerve agents are chemicals that disrupt the messages sent by the nerves to the body’s organs. They can be administered in gas or liquid form, causing symptoms including vomiting, breathlessness, paralysis and often death. The banned VX nerve agent was used to kill the estranged half-brother of North Korea’s leader last year in Malaysia.
Sally Davies, the chief medical officer for England, said there was a low risk to the public, but experts said nerve agents are highly dangerous and need to be processed with specialized care.
“Nerve agents are not materials that can be made at home,” said Andrea Sella, a professor of inorganic chemistry at University College, London. “Their level of toxicity is such that they are only to be manufactured in specialized facilities.”
Authorities will be looking to find impurities and residues that might provide clues as to the precise chemical process used to manufacture the material, Sella said.
“There is no question that the authorities will be looking for the container used to deliver the material, as the chemical contents would be a goldmine,” Sella said. “With this information it might well be possible to trace the origin of the substance.”
Police and forensics officers are focusing on three sites in Salisbury, a medieval city known for its towering cathedral, located 90 miles (145 kilometers) southwest of London. Rudd said the sites are Skripal’s home, a pub and a restaurant.
Skripal, a former colonel in Russia’s GRU military intelligence service, was convicted in 2006 of spying for Britain and imprisoned. He was freed in 2010 as part of a widely publicized spy swap in which the US agreed to hand over 10 members of a Russian sleeper cell found operating in America in return for four Russians convicted of spying for the West.
Those who knew him in Salisbury were shocked, describing him as friendly and outgoing — hardly a man hiding out.
The owner of a local convenience shop frequented by Skripal described him as one of her favorite customers. Ebru Ozturk said she made sure to stock the food he liked, particularly smoked bacon and Polish salami.
Ozturk, 41, painted an image of an educated man enjoying his retirement — fond of playing the lottery and chatting with the locals.
“Usually he plays lottery and scratch cards,” she said. “Plus a few weeks he was lucky as well and laughed about it.”


Thailand carries out first execution since 2009

Updated 25 min 23 sec ago
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Thailand carries out first execution since 2009

BANGKOK: Thailand has carried out its first execution since 2009, putting a 26-year-old convicted murderer to death by lethal injection in a move condemned by Amnesty International as “deplorable.”
Theerasak Longji was executed on Monday, six years after his conviction for stabbing a 17-year-old student 24 times to steal his mobile phone and wallet.
The execution came as Thailand’s coup leader-turned-premier Prayut Chan-O-Cha prepares to travel to Britain and France on a highly-publicized official visit.
The trip may now see the former army chief face awkward questions over the use of the death penalty as well as Thailand’s wider human rights record since he seized power in a 2014 coup.
Prayut, however, defended capital punishment on Tuesday, telling reporters that in order to maintain peace and order in society, executions are “still a necessity and what people want.”
“There are many serious cases happening today,” he said.
The Department of Corrections, which oversees one of the world’s highest incarceration rates, said 325 convicts have been executed since 1935, the majority by shooting.
That practice ended on December 11, 2003. Between then and 2009 a further six were executed by lethal injection.
Monday’s execution serves as a “lesson to deter those who wanted to commit serious crime,” the department added in a statement.
But rights groups and the United Nations hit out at the sudden resumption of the death penalty, which remains mandatory for a number of offenses including aggravated murder.
“This is a deplorable violation of the right to life,” Amnesty International said, accusing the kingdom of reneging on commitments to move toward abolition of the death penalty.
Thailand was “also putting itself out of step with the current global shift away from capital punishment.”
Figures provided to Amnesty by the Ministry of Justice show 510 people including 94 women were on death row at the end of last year.
Nearly 200 had exhausted all final appeals — like Theerasak. As a last resort they can seek a pardon from Thailand’s king.
The death penalty is still in force in numerous countries in Asia and China remains the world’s top executioner.
The International Federation of Human Rights said Thailand would have become a “de facto abolitionist” had it not carried out any executions before August 24, 2019, 10 years after the last death sentences were carried out.
About 10 protesters rallied on Tuesday afternoon outside the high-security prison in Bangkok where Theerasak was executed, holding placards that read “Execute Justice, Not People” and “Choose Humanity, Not Barbarity.”
The UN Human Rights Office for Southeast Asia said it “deeply regrets” the resumption of executions.
Thailand’s justice system has been criticized for favoring the wealthy and connected and is notoriously slow and harsh for poor suspects.
In 2015 two Myanmar migrant workers were sentenced to death for the 2014 murder of two British backpackers, one of whom was raped, on the dive resort island of Koh Tao after a flawed police investigation.
Their lawyer told AFP on Tuesday they were awaiting a ruling on their final appeal.