UK Home Secretary Priti Patel has granted permission for 44-year-old Ms Sturgess’s inquest to be converted into a public inquiry to better examine any possible Russian involvement, amid allegations she died as an indirect result of Kremlin-sponsored poisoning.
In her letter to the coroner Baroness Heather Hallett, Ms Patel said: “I hope this inquiry will bring comfort to (Ms Sturgess’s family and others affected) through a greater understanding of the circumstances of Ms Sturgess’ death and recognise the bravery and resilience of those who responded.”
The inquiry would be likely to be held in both Salisbury Guildhall and at venues in London, and be established “as soon as is reasonably possible in 2022”, Ms Patel said.
Lady Hallett, who will chair the inquiry, said: “I am anxious to ensure that the inquiry can commence its substantive work and deliver answers to the questions the bereaved family and partner of Dawn Sturgess have about her death as soon as possible.”
Ms Sturgess died in hospital on July 8 after she and her partner, Charlie Rowley, became seriously ill in Amesbury, Wiltshire, when they came into contact with Novichok on a discarded perfume bottle.
It followed the attempted murder of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, his daughter Yulia, and ex-police officer Nick Bailey, who were poisoned in nearby Salisbury in March that year when members of a Russian military intelligence squad are believed to have smeared the deadly nerve agent on Mr Skripal’s door handle in Salisbury.
All three survived, as did Mr Rowley.
The Metropolitan Police have identified three suspects wanted in connection with the poisonings: Denis Sergeev, Alexander Mishkin and Anatoliy Chepiga, who used the aliases Sergey Fedotov, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov respectively while in the UK.
Police have appealed to the public for any information about how the bottle came to be found eight miles from Salisbury, and where it was stored between the departure of the would-be assassins from the UK in March and its discovery three months later.
They believe that the three suspects identified so far are in Russia, and with no extradition treaty with the country there is little chance of them being brought to the UK.
Ms Patel previously condemned the “appalling” attack, and told the House of Commons that the UK would “take every possible step to detain and extradite them to face justice” should the suspects ever leave Russia.
A further pre-inquest review is planned for next month.
In her letter to Lady Hallett, Ms Patel wrote: “I am mindful of the time that has already passed since Ms Sturgess’ death and her family’s understandable wish for the investigation to be completed as soon as the circumstances of a highly complex and sensitive investigation allow.”
The coroner previously wrote to Ms Patel, pressing her case for a public inquiry on the basis that an inquest—which is limited in scope—“cannot make any finding of civil or criminal liability against a named person, and it cannot attribute blame or impose any sanction or punishment”.
Speaking at the last hearing in September at the Royal Courts of Justice, Lady Hallett said: “I have firmly concluded that I cannot conduct a full, fair and effective inquest into the death of Dawn Sturgess if these proceedings continue as an inquest.”
Moscow has repeatedly denied any involvement, with President Vladimir Putin claiming the suspects were civilians, and Petrov and Boshirov stating in an interview that they were tourists visiting Salisbury Cathedral.