The Russian Prosecutor General's office said Wednesday that it was investigating the possible role of a former top owner in the Yukos oil company in the poisoning death of ex-Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko.
The prosecutor's office said in a statement that Leonid Nevzlin, who is living in exile in Israel, and other Yukos figures wanted by Russia, could have ordered Litvinenko's murder in London last month.
The news came hours after a lawyer for a jailed Italian man who met with Litvinenko the day the ex-KGB agent fell ill from poisoning said his client is seeking to be released from prison.
Mario Scaramella was arrested Sunday in Naples after returning from London, and was questioned by Italian prosecutors in a Rome jail, where he is being detained. The arrest is not believed to be directly connected to the case of Litvinenko.
"We intend to seek his immediate release from prison," lawyer Sergio Rastrelli told reporters shortly before the questioning. "My client will respond to all questions and will clarify any ... misunderstanding."
Rastrelli said Scaramella is accused of slander, but according to Italian news reports and Scaramella's father, Amedeo, he is also accused of international arms trafficking.
Scaramella met with Litvinenko at a London sushi bar on Nov. 1, the day the former KGB agent fell ill. Litvinenko died in London on Nov. 23 after he was exposed to a rare radioactive element, polonium-210. In a deathbed statement, he accused President Vladimir Putin of ordering his murder, allegations which the Kremlin has dismissed as absurd.
The Italian man has said he showed Litvinenko e-mails from a confidential source identifying the possible killers of Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya and listing other potential targets for assassination — including himself and Litvinenko.
The statement from Russian authorities, meanwhile, did not give any details of the allegations against Nevzlin. Russia has unsuccessfully pressed for the extradition of a number of Kremlin critics in recent years, including tycoon Boris Berezovsky who lives in Britain.
Prosecutors may seek extraditions
The statement added prosecutors had formed a special investigative unit and were preparing to file international requests for assistance in the case and possible extradition demands.
Nevzlin told the AP last month that Litvinenko had given him a document related to Yukos and said he believed the agent's killing was tied to his investigations into the company.
His lawyer, Dmitry Kharitonov, dismissed the allegations of Nevzlin's involvement in the death of Litvinenko as a provocation.
"It's the easiest thing for the prosecutor general's office to pin all crimes on people living outside Russia," he said according to RIA-Novosti. "This is just another provocation."
Nevzlin fled Russia after authorities launched a campaign against Yukos, once Russia's top oil producer, in 2003. The company's founder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is serving an eight-year sentence for fraud and tax evasion and Yukos' main assets now belong to the state oil group Rosneft.
Scaramella, the jailed Italian, said he did not eat during his meeting with Litvinenko at the London sushi bar. But he was hospitalized for several days in London after testing positive for polonium-210, although he showed no symptoms.
Scaramella has been a consultant for the Mitrokhin commission, which was formed in Italy in 2002 with the aim of investigating cases of past KGB infiltration in Italy.
According to Italian newspapers Wednesday, Scaramella is accused of fabricating a story that there was a plot against his life and that of Paolo Guzzanti, a senator who served as chair of the commission.
Prosecutors allege that Scaramella made up the plot to gain credit before secret service and commission officials, according to Corriere della Sera daily and other reports.
The Foreign Ministry said that Scaramella, a self-styled security and environmental expert, has repeatedly tried over the past years to become a full-fledged member of the Italian secret services, but that his efforts have been turned down.