The radioactive poison that killed Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko was delivered in the most civilized of circumstances — at tea time, as he sipped green tea with lemon and honey with two former spy colleagues at a posh London hotel.
It was Nov. 1, 2006, and Litvinenko was joined by former KGB agents Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun in the pine-paneled barroom of the Millennium in the city’s Mayfair district.
The head barman who served the three men that afternoon told investigators that right before they sat down together, Lugovoi asked for a cigar.
“The bill recorded that there were three guests in the group and that they had sat at Table 1,” said a report released Thursday, implicating the two men, Russia’s spy agency and President Vladimir Putin himself in what would happen next.
“A number of drinks were listed on the bill, both alcoholic and nonalcoholic.”
One of the items on the bill was “3 Tea.”
The barman “recalled that this was, in fact, an order for green tea with lemon and honey. He said that the tea had been made in one large pot by his colleague behind the bar and that he brought the pot and the cups to the table,” the report says.
It was not the barman’s practice to pour tea for customers, he told investigators.
“He said that the teapots in use in the Pine Bar at the time were made of white porcelain.”
“Understandably, he paid only limited attention to the group at Mr. Lugovoi’s table. He said that the men were ‘very well behaved and well dressed.’
“He did not overhear anything the men said and did not remember anything unusual about the way they acted.
“In particular, he did not notice anything unusual about the tea or the way that it had been drunk.
“He said, ‘It was as normal as any other table or any other time.’ ”
Litvinenko himself told investigators from his hospital bed that Lugovoi had led him to a table in the corner of the bar, and that they were joined soon after by Kovtun.
“Mr. Litvinenko described drinking some green tea that was already on the table,” the report said.
Litvinenko told investigators, “There were a few mugs on the table and there was also a tea pot.”
Litvinenko wasn’t interested in drinking anything, he told probers.
But before they left, Lugovoi gestured to the tea pot.
“He said, ‘OK, well we’re going to leave now anyway so there is still some tea left here if you want you can have some.’
“And then the waiter went away or I think Andre [Lugovoi ] asked for a clean cup, and he bought it [sic]. He left and when there was a cup I poured some tea out of the teapot, although there was only a little left on the bottom and it made just half a cup. Maybe about 50 grams.
“I swallowed several times, but it was green tea with no sugar and it was already cold by the way.
“I didn’t like it for some reason, well almost cold tea with no sugar and I didn’t drink it anymore.
“Maybe in total I swallowed three or four times,” he told probers.
“I haven’t even finished that cup.”
Kovtun had the gall to invite his wife and 8-year-old son — also staying at the hotel — to the table to say hello to the now poisoned victim.
“He said, ‘This is Uncle Sasha, shake his hand,’ ” Litvinenko remembered.
Security footage from the meeting shows the three met for less than a half-hour, from 4 p.m. to 4:30.
He would fall ill within hours of that — but his death, in a London hospital bed, would take three excruciating weeks.
On his deathbed, Litvinenko blamed Putin.
“You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed,” he said.
“The howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life.”
Thursday’s report appears to bear him right.
“The forensic and other evidence strongly indicates that it was during this meeting that Mr. Litvinenko drank green tea poisoned with polonium,” it says.
Litvinenko had been a perpetual thorn in Putin’s side, ever since he defected from the Russian spy service and moved to London in 2000.
In books and articles published in English and Russian, the dissident had repeatedly accused the ruthless Putin of seizing and holding political power through a campaign of intimidation and violence.
Just four months before his death, Litvinenko would publish an embarrassing account on a Russian news site that detailed evidence purporting to prove that Putin was a pedophile.
He had been repeatedly been warned about threats on his life, and as recently as the very day of his poisoning had been told by an Italian colleague that he was on a “hit list” kept by Russian security services agents.
Only two weeks afterward would Litvinenko’s puzzled doctors realize that he was losing his hair and vomiting blood due to acute radioactive poisoning.
Even then, traces of radiation would still be found all over the hotel, including in the men’s rooms and throughout the Pine Bar.
In Kovtun’s room at the Millennium, the readings were off the chart.
“The highest readings were found in [Kovtun’s] bathroom and the highest of those readings was found in a sediment trap below the plughole in that bathroom,” the report says.
“It therefore appeared that polonium in one form or another had been poured down the plughole.”
All the hotel teapots were tested — and investigators easily found the one that had held cold green tea — along with a cold, cruel death.
“At some stage,” investigators found, “polonium . . . has been poured out of the spout,” one forensic investigators told probers.
“I think that’s the only conclusion you can come to.”