24 March, 2013

Poison probe over death of Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky after he is found dead 'in bath'

Poison probe over death of Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky after he is found dead 'in bath'
Officers trained to deal with chemical and radiation threats have been sent to the home of Boris Berezovsky, the exiled Russian oligarch who was found dead on Saturday.
Mystery of Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky found dead 'in bath'
Mr Berezovsky had been living in exile in Britain since 2000 Photo: AP

Police investigating the circumstances of the sudden "unexplained" death said the chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear experts were conducting a "number of searches as a precaution".

A cordon was in place around the property and neighbours in Mill Lane, Ascot, have not been allowed into their homes. An ambulance had been called to Mr Berezovsky's home at 3.20pm on Saturday by his bodyguard.

Friends said Mr Berezovsky had been "destroyed" by losing a £3 billion legal action with his former business partner, Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea football club.

Despite a 13-year battle with the Kremlin and numerous assassination attempts, it was claimed that he may have taken his own life after suffering from severe depression.

Mr Berezovsky, 67, had been living in exile in Britain since 2000. He was given asylum in 2003, a move which created diplomatic tensions between London and Moscow.

Police stand guard at a roadblock near where it is believed Boris Berezovsky lived (Getty Images)

Once worth as much as £3 billion, he had suffered financial and personal problems, his friends said. News of Mr Berezovsky's death emerged in a posting on Facebook by his son-in-law, Egor Schuppe. Mr Schuppe posted the simple message: "Boris Berezovsky is dead."

His sudden death will inevitably lead to speculation of darker motives. Mr Berezovsky, an outspoken critic ofVladimir Putin, the Russian president, had long feared for his life.

He had been due to be a witness at the inquest next month into the death of Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB spy who was murdered in 2006 after being poisoned by radioactive polonium-210 in what is believed to have been a Kremlin-sanctioned assassination.

Superintendent Stuart Greenfield, from Thames Valley Police, said: "We are aware the cordon is causing disruption to local residents and we apologise for any inconvenience, but it is important we take all necessary measures to ensure a full and thorough investigation can be carried out.

"I would like to reassure residents that we are confident there is no risk to the wider community.

"The property is part of a large estate so a number of roads are closed off at the moment and will remain so for the time being."

Mr Putin's spokesman said the Russian president had been informed of Mr Berezovsky's death. The spokesman claimed that in recent weeks the oligarch had written a letter to Mr Putin "asking for forgiveness" and seeking "help to return to the motherland".

Russia's Channel One state television claimed that Mr Berezovsky had suffered several heart attacks during the past week.

Lord Bell, the PR executive who had acted as Mr Berezovsky's spokesman and was also a good friend, toldThe Sunday Telegraph that he had last seen the oligarch three weeks ago. "He was extremely depressed," said Lord Bell.

"He has been very low since the court ruling against him. He had huge financial problems and personal problems, too."

Mr Berezovsky had sued Mr Abramovich over allegations that he had been intimidated into selling the football club owner shares in Sibneft, the Russian oil conglomerate.

Boris Berezovsky with Roman Abramovich in 2000 (AP)

The ensuing legal battle is thought to be the most expensive of all time, with legal costs as high as £100 million.

In a devastating ruling against him in August last year, Mrs Justice Gloster had "found Mr Berezovsky an unimpressive, and inherently unreliable, witness, who regarded truth as a transitory, flexible concept, which could be moulded to suit his current purposes".

Lord Bell said yesterday that the ruling had wrecked his reputation and that he had never recovered.

"That judge destroyed his morale. It destroyed his self-esteem," he said. Lord Bell added: "He was a very close friend. He was an extremely nice man, very kind to me and all the people around him. I had a huge amount of admiration for him. My view of him is the complete opposite of Judge Gloster's."

Mr Berezovsky said after the trial: "Sometimes I have the impression that Putin himself wrote this judgment."

Lord Bell said his friend, whom he had known for 14 years, had long lived in fear of his life after making enemies with Mr Putin. "Russia is a very dangerous place," said Lord Bell, the founder of Bell Pottinger, the public relations company.

Ilya Zhegulev, a commentator for Russian Forbes magazine, said in a blog post last night that he had met Berezovsky for an informal chat at a Four Seasons hotel on Friday, although he did not say where.

According to Mr Zhegulev, when he asked Berezovsky if he missed Russia, the tycoon replied: "I want nothing more than to return to Russia. Even when they opened a criminal investigation against me. Russia is so dear to me."

The tycoon suggested he might have been better off if he had stayed in Russia and been put in jail. Mr Zhegulev said Berezovsky had experienced "many disappointments" while in London, adding that the oligarch told him: "I've lost the meaning of life."

The alarm over Mr Berezovsky was raised at one of his homes in Ascot by his bodyguard yesterday. His private lawyer told Lord Bell that an ambulance had been called but that Mr Berezovsky could not be revived.

A South Central Ambulance Service spokesman said: "We were called at 3.18pm by a caller who was concerned for the welfare of a gentleman at an address in Ascot. A 67-year-old man was confirmed dead at the scene. The death is unexplained and is being investigated by Thames Valley Police."

Mr Berezovsky had been facing a new legal battle brought by his former girlfriend, with whom he had two children.

Yelena Gorbunova and Boris Berezovsky (Reuters)

Elena Gorbunova had sat at Mr Berezovsky's side throughout his High Court battle with Mr Abramovich. But the couple subsequently split up and in January she had applied to the court to freeze £200 million of his assets to prevent the sale of property in Britain and France.

At a preliminary hearing Mr Justice Mann said: "On the evidence, Mr Berezovsky is a man under financial pressure."

Mr Berezovsky, a former mathematician who had made his fortune in oil, aviation and television in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Communism, fled Russia in 2000 and was put on the country's official wanted list in 2001 on charges of fraud and money laundering.

The British Government granted him political asylum in 2003 and he used London as a base from which to launch critical attacks on Mr Putin and to call for his overthrow.

Boris Berezovsky walks to his car after a press conference in Westminster in July 2007 (PA)

Among his circle of exiles was Mr Litvinenko, who lived in a house in north London which was owned by Mr Berezovsky.

The oligarch had survived several assassination attempts himself while in Russia, including a bomb that decapitated his chauffeur.

Demyan Kudryavtsev, a journalist and former associate of Mr Berezovsky, wrote on Twitter: "There were no signs of violent death."

Alexander Dobrovinsky, a lawyer whose partnership has offices in Park Lane — where Mr Berezovsky was also based — told Russia's Rossiya 24 channel that he had been called from London and told the oligarch had committed suicide.

"He was in a terrible, awful state recently," said the lawyer.

"He had so many debts, he was practically ruined; he was selling paintings and other things."

Mr Dobrovinsky added: "I also know from our mutual acquaintances that he asked them in the last few days for $5,000 (£3,300) in order to fly somewhere."

Mr Dobrovinsky's claims could not be confirmed and Mr Kudryavtsev cast doubt on them.

Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin's spokesman, claimed that Mr Berezovsky had been in personal contact with the president in recent weeks, asking for forgiveness for his "mistakes".

Mr Peskov told Rossiya 24: "Some time ago, maybe a couple of months ago, Berezovsky addressed

Putin in a letter, written by him personally, in which he admitted he made a lot of mistakes and was asking for forgiveness and to help him to return to the motherland."

Thames Valley Police said Mr Berezovsky's death was being treated as "unexplained" and had cordoned off the property while investigations were carried out.

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