The Scene and the Crime: The Salisbury Poisonings

23 August 2020 — American Herald Tribune

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Nine months after Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned in March 2018, the BBC’s ‘Panorama’ screened a documentary about it, Salisbury Nerve Agent Attack: the Inside Story. The show backed the Tory government’s conviction that Russian GRU officers attacked the former Russian double agent and his daughter. But British experts pointed to its factual errors, and some ordinary punters – including the BBC’s own correspondent in Salisbury – were dubious.

This year, the BBC revisited the scene and the crime. The Salisbury Poisonings aired in the UK in June, and SBS screens it in Australia on 24-26 August. The timing couldn’t be better to support the supposition that the Kremlin also poisoned Alexei Navalny on 21 August.

This time, the BBC admits the series is feature, not fact, with actors, and much is not filmed in Salisbury. Merely ‘based on a real story’, it’s not about the Russians and little about the Skripals. Director Saul Dibb candidly says the film is part domestic drama, part thriller, and part horror movie. It’s about a bizarre second poisoning in June 2018, that was fatal. Anticipating the coronavirus, its focus is on the local community and health officials, ‘the people who had to clean up this mess, rather than the people who made it’.

So for human interest there’s Tracy Daszkiewicz (played by Anne-Marie Duff), the director of public health for Wiltshire, and Detective-Sergeant Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall), who was on the scene of the Skripals’ poisoning. But what really happened?

On 4 July 2018, British authorities announced that a local couple, Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley, both in their mid-40s, had collapsed in Amesbury, 12 kilometres from Salisbury, on 30 June and were in Salisbury General Hospital, where Sturgess died. As with the Skripals’ poisoning, media silence had reigned for four days.

Then Neil Basu, counter-terrorism Assistant Commissioner of Police, and Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced that ‘the nerve agent Novichok’ was found on the couple’s skin. They didn’t say which variant of novichok, where it came from, or how it involved terrorism. But Prime Minister May and Foreign Secretary Johnson had claimed that Russian novichok prostrated the Skripals on 4 March. Its residue supposedly affected Sturgess and Rowley on 30 June.

If so, the powerful nerve agent that had been said to kill within minutes and deteriorate in a few days was extraordinarily persistent. If it was spread by Russians in puddles across Wiltshire, as journalist Ben Macintyre claimed in The Times, its victims were remarkably few: by 7 July only Sturgess had died, a whole week ‘after handling an item contaminated with the nerve agent Novichok’ (as Simon Jenkins reported in the Guardian) given to her by Rowley, who couldn’t remember where he found it. Maybe it was in a charity bin.

If Rowley found an unopened, cellophane-wrapped box containing the perfume spray, in a bin still uncleared four months after the Russians’ visit, where was the first, opened container of novichok that poisoned the Skripals? Police said they found the perfume bottle on 11 July in Rowley’s kitchen, ten days after Sturgess’ collapse in the bathroom. Not until September, three months later, did the British authorities release photos of a perfume bottle and its nozzle, without saying where they got them.

The initial investigation by Coroner David Ridley took evidence from Wiltshire police and from the hospital, collected before novichok was found in Rowley’s apartment. Nothing more was heard of that evidence after novichok was announced as the cause of death. But a British researcher recovered and published the police records in mid-2020. They showed that following a deal with suppliers, Rowley and Sturgess took Class A illegal, contaminated drugs on 30 June which caused her death and his illness. (In the BBC version, the Sturgess character had alcohol problems, but wasn’t a drug addict).

The inquest into Sturgess’ death began on 19 July 2018. Coroner Ridley asserted in December that two visiting Russians brought novichok in a perfume bottle to Salisbury, citing Detective Chief Inspector Murphy from Counter-Terrorism Policing. After an adjournment in January 2019, the Coroner’s Court announced in October that the inquest had been ‘indefinitely adjourned’, or dropped.

British authorities reported the Skripal and Sturgess events to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which sent investigators. Then, a  few weeks after The Salisbury Poisonings had screened in the UK, an Austrian journalist revealed that a Financial Times story on 9 July 2020 manipulated the OPCW’s leaked confidential report, suppressing its findings that blood tests of Sergei and Yulia revealed no Russian nerve agent, that GRU agents were not the poisoners, and that novichok detected in samples from Salisbury was not from Rowley’s apartment, since OPCW inspectors didn’t conduct tests there. The Russian Foreign Ministry asserted it came from Porton Down, the Ministry of Defence’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory.

Australians and others watching the BBC dramatization might keep in mind that it is loosely ‘based on a real story’, but that doesn’t make it the real story. For that, we may be waiting a long time.


Dr. Alison Broinowski FAIIA, a former Australian diplomat, is completing a book on terrorism. She is the Vice-President of Australians for War Powers Reform.

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