The scientist who leaked Russia’s Novichok ‘conspiracy’

The State Scientific Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology in Moscow. (AFP)
Updated 14 March 2018
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The scientist who leaked Russia’s Novichok ‘conspiracy’

MOSCOW: Dissident Soviet scientist Vil Mirzayanov gained notoriety in the 1990s when he blew the cover on Moscow’s secret experimentation with Novichok, the nerve gas used in the poisoning of a Russian ex-spy in Britain.
Mirzayanov had worked for almost three decades in the Soviet Union at the State Scientific Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology.
After he was fired in 1992, he and another scientist wrote a newspaper article revealing how the government had developed deadly chemical compounds known as Novichok — or “newcomer” in English.
Now 83 and living in the US, Mirzayanov described the sophisticated substances used to make the Novichok agents which had been developed under a classified program codenamed Foliant, or folio.
Novichok agents are binary chemical weapons, he said, which means that their potency only manifests itself after chemical synthesis of relatively harmless components.
Since the same chemical elements in Novichok are used to make pesticides, facilities producing these substances can easily be disguised as civilian factories, he wrote.
Mirzayanov said he had witnessed several scientists failing to regain their health after exposure to a Novichok-type agent.
“The damage it inflicts is practically incurable,” he said in the article.
Asked this week about the March 4 poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, he was quoted as saying: “These people are gone — the man and his daughter. Even if they survive they will not recover.”
In his memoirs published in Russian in 2002, Mirzayanov said his institute and others in the country involved in the chemical weapons program continued their research even after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and as Russia proclaimed disarmament and a ban on chemical weapons.
Binary bombs had been developed since the 1970s and were tested at a military base used for chemical weapons in a town called Shikhany in Russia’s southern Saratov region and also in Uzbekistan, Mirzayanov wrote.
“Like hundreds of other scientists, I was participating in a conspiracy against the future convention on chemical weapons,” he said.
He had been put in charge of controlling potential leaks of harmful chemicals used in the Foliant program into the air and waterways.
His memoirs describe witnessing a relatively unsuccessful test of a precursor to Novichok-type agents based on a chemical named simply “Substance-33.”
In the test, the substance was deployed in vapor form via a bomb dropped from a plane.
The Novichok agents were not listed in the eventual Chemical Weapons Convention because Russia kept them secret, Mirziayanov argued.
Mirzayanov became involved in Russia’s nascent democratic movement and wanted to make his concerns about the chemical weapons program public.
As a result of his dissident activities, he was fired from the institute. He then decided to write the whistle-blowing article in a Moscow newspaper along with another chemist, Lev Fyodorov.
They warned of poor safety standards at the Moscow facility and vast quantities of harmful chemicals stored elsewhere in Russia.
The article led the authorities to prosecute Mirzayanov for divulging state secrets. He was arrested in October 1992 and held for several days in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo prison, used by the security services.
His case was eventually closed in 1994 after considerable international pressure on the Russian authorities. Mirzayanov has lived in the United States since 1996.
Russia declared in 2017 that it had destroyed all of its chemical weapon stockpile.
Moscow has rejected accusations of involvement in poisoning Skripal.


India’s Modi stares at biggest election loss since coming to power

Updated 11 December 2018
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India’s Modi stares at biggest election loss since coming to power

  • Analysts say a big loss for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party would signify rural dismay and help unite the opposition
  • Poll analysts cautioned that with the counting in preliminary stages, it was still too early to predict the outcome of state races involving millions of voters

NEW DELHI: India’s ruling party could lose power in three key states, four TV networks said on Tuesday, citing votecount leads, potentially handing Prime Minister Narendra Modi his biggest defeat since he took office in 2014, and months ahead of a general election.
The main opposition Congress party could form governments in the central states of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, and in the western state of Rajasthan, all big heartland states that powered Modi to a landslide win in the 2014 general election.
Analysts say a big loss for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party would signify rural dismay and help unite the opposition, despite his high personal popularity in the face of criticism that he did not deliver on promises of jobs for young people and better conditions for farmers.
“We’ve all voted for Congress this time and our candidate is winning here,” said Bishnu Prasad Jalodia, a wheat grower in Madhya Pradesh, where it appears as if Congress might have to woo smaller parties to keep out Modi’s party.
“BJP ignored us farmers, they ignored those of us at the bottom of the pyramid.”
The elections are also a test for Rahul Gandhi, president of the left-of-center Congress, who is trying to forge a broad alliance with regional groups and face Modi with his most serious challenge yet, in the election that must be held by May.
In Rajasthan, the Congress was leading in 114 of the 199 seats contested, against 81 for the BJP, in the initial round of voting, India Today TV said.
In Chhattisgarh, the Congress was ahead in 59 of the 90 seats at stake, with the BJP at 24. In Madhya Pradesh, the most important of the five states that held assembly elections over the past few weeks, Congress was ahead, with 112 of 230 seats. The Hindu nationalist BJP was at 103, the network said.
Three other TV channels also said Congress was leading in the three states, with regional parties leading in two smaller states that also voted, Telangana in the south and Mizoram in the northeast.
Poll analysts cautioned that with the counting in preliminary stages, it was still too early to predict the outcome of state races involving millions of voters.
Local issues usually dominate state polls, but politicians are seeing the elections as a pointer to the national vote just months away.
Indian markets recovered some ground after an early fall as the central bank governor’s unexpected resignation the previous day shocked investors.
The rupee currency dropped as much as 1.5 percent to 72.465 per dollar, while bond yields rose 12 basis points to 7.71 percent after the resignation of Reserve Bank of India Governor Urjit Patel.
The broader NSE share index was down 1.3 percent, with investors cautious ahead of the election results.
“As the three erstwhile BJP states have a large agrarian population, the BJP’s drubbing could be interpreted to mean that farm unrest is real,” Nomura said in a research note before the results.
“A rout of the BJP on its homeground states should encourage cohesion among the opposition parties to strengthen the non-BJP coalition for the general elections.”
Gandhi, the fourth generation scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, has sought to build a coalition of regional groups, some headed by experienced firebrand, ambitious politicians.
Congress has already said it would not name Gandhi, who is seen as lacking experience, as a prime ministerial candidate.
“When one and one become eleven, even the mighty can be dethroned,” opposition leader Akhilesh Yadav said of the prospect of growing opposition unity.