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Widow of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko says death of Kremlin critics -

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MATT WORDSWORTH, PRESENTER: Tensions between the West and Russia are being strained even further, with an inquest into the death of a Russian exile on British soil. When the Russian tycoon collapsed during his evening run, speculation mounted over a possible KGB-style hit.

Alexander Perepilichnyy was in the middle of giving evidence in a Russian tax fraud case at the time. And he'd taken out life insurance only days before his death. Lawyers argue the case bears a striking resemblance to that of former spy Alexander Litvinenko, whose death from radioactive polonium was found to be part of a plot that's suspected to lead all the way to President Putin.

Litvinenko's widow, Marina, claims not enough has been done to prevent critics of the Kremlin being killed, and is demanding Western governments including Australia, crack down on Putin's inner circle.

Europe correspondent James Glenday reports from London.

JAMES GLENDAY, EUROPE CORRESPONDENT: Russians have long been drawn to the bright lights of the British capital.

ROMAN BORISOVICH, ANTI-CORRUPTION CAMPAIGNER: The safe deposit box is also a refuge.

JAMES GLENDAY: Soviet spies played cat and mouse here during the Cold War, and when the wall came down, money from Moscow flowed into the priciest of postcodes.

BILL BROWDER, INVESTMENT MANAGER, HCM: London is the centre of the universe for Russian money laundering and Russian intelligence gathering.

JAMES GLENDAY: It's also a city where critics of the Kremlin felt relatively safe at least until recently.

MARINA LITVINENKO, WIDOW: I'm a woman who lost a husband. Not just lost, he was killed. At this moment, I'm talking about my feelings.

JAMES GLENDAY: Marina Litvinenko became known around the world in 2006, after her husband, Alexander, died in bizarre circumstances. Sacha, as he was affectionately known, was a former Russian security services officer who became an outspoken critic of corruption in Moscow after claiming asylum in the UK. He'd worked with Britain's spy agencies, and became sick after drinking a lethal dose of radioactive polonium in a cup of tea in Mayfair.

MARINA LITVINENKO: Sacha was poisoned just a few days before he was supposed to go to Spain to give his witness statement about Spanish crime organisations. All these gangsters who were arrested in Spain were then linked to very high-profile people in Putin's government.

JAMES GLENDAY: The British inquiry this year found Litvinenko was almost certainly killed by Andrey Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun on behalf of the FSB, the Russian security service that succeeded the KGB, and that approval for the operation came all the way from the top.

ROBERT OWEN, INQUIRY CHAIRMAN (ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE, 2016): The FSB operation to kill Mr Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr Patuchev, then head of the FSB, and also by President Putin.

JAMES GLENDAY: The Russian Government completely rejects all the findings. It claims the way Litvinenko's death was investigated was a blatant provocation of the British authorities, and cannot help hurting the bilateral relationship.

But even though Marina Litvinenko is happy with the outcome, she says western governments aren't doing enough to protect critics of the Kremlin, and claims her husband's not the only one to have been silenced.

MARINA LITVINENKO: It was only shown how easy it is to do. You can just take this simple capsule and bring it to Australia, to Europe, to United States, because it's not detected. And you don't know who will just easily spread it.

JAMES GLENDAY: In 2012, 44 year old Alexander Perepilichnyy collapsed while running near his rented $30,000 a month house in Surrey.

WITNESS (ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE, 2012): He was completely cold.

JAMES GLENDAY: This amateur video shows his body shortly after it was discovered. Police maintain he died of natural causes, probably a heart attack. But a coronial inquest that could strain diplomatic tensions with Russia even further is now hearing evidence Perepilichnyy may have had traces of a poisonous substance in his stomach. He was assisting in a major Russian tax fraud case at the time of his death, and lawyers told the coroner they believe it was a reprisal killing.

STAEMENT FROM HENRIETTA HILL QC (female voiceover): "In the same way that Mr Litvinenko was providing testimony to Spanish prosecutors and died before it could be concluded, Mr Perepilinchnyy was providing testimony to Swiss prosecutors and died before that could be concluded."

JAMES GLENDAY: The case Perepilichnyy was helping with involved Bill Browder's company, Hermitage Capital Management.

BILL BROWDER: He then comes to us and complains that he's been threatened, his life has been threatened and members of the criminal group are threatening his life. He then gets a very large £3.5 million life insurance policy to protect him because he's so afraid of losing his life, and then all of a sudden, without any warning, a healthy 44 year old man, Alexander Perepilichnyy, drops dead while he's jogging. That seems to me to be highly suspicious.

JAMES GLENDAY: Mr Browder, whose company amassed a significant fortune investing in Russian resources, once publicly supported Vladimir Putin. But nearly a decade ago, he was barred from the country, accused of tax fraud and jailed for nine years in absentia. One of his lawyers died in prison, and Mr Browder, who insists he's done nothing wrong, claims he could be next.

BILL BROWDER: The Russians have threatened me on a number of occasions in a number of different ways with various difficult personal, physical consequences.

JAMES GLENDAY: Moscow sympathisers claim the cases have only got so much publicity in the UK because the western media is biased towards anti-Putin figures like Mr Browder. Tensions between Russia and the West have been rising in recent years over a series of diplomatic and military disagreements in places like Syria and Eastern Europe, and the British Government's response has been relatively mooted.

SARAH LAIN, RESEARCH FELLOW, ROYAL UNITED SERVICES INSTITUTE: Because of what has happened after Ukraine, there is a concern about escalating. So if Britain was to do something drastic in response to this, I think the assessment would be that Russia would respond in kind. And that's not really productive for relations or improving the situation.

JAMES GLENDAY: But anti-corruption campaigners like Roman Borisovich argue there is another way to punish Russia for the Litvinenko killing. He says if Putin's inner circle was prevented from owning multimillion dollar properties here in London, they would quickly put pressure on the President to improve relations with the West.

ROMAN BORISOVICH: These modern democracies are based on money, they are not based in ideologies, on religion or on nationalism anymore. The ideology is greenback. This is what we need to go after.

JAMES GLENDAY: But there's a view in diplomatic circles that approach could damage other Russian investment in the UK, and make a shaky relationship worse. Security analysts say making waves about the deaths of dissidents or double agents may simply not be worth it.

MATT WORDSWORTH: James Glenday reporting from London.