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Alexander Perepilichny Helped Expose Fraud In Russia. Then He Ended Up Dead

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Here's one of the stranger sagas you'll hear this week. It involves a Russian whistleblower, an English court and a lethal fern. Here are the broad outlines of the story. Alexander Perepilichny was a Russian banker. He helped expose a money-laundering scheme that involved both the Mafia and the Russian state. Perepilichny fled Russia for England after receiving death threats. And it was there, in England, that he died at the age of 44 back in 2012. I'm going to let Luke Harding, a reporter for The Guardian newspaper, pick up the story from here. And Luke, tell us what police in England initially say about about how Perepilichny died.

LUKE HARDING: He went for a jog, and he collapsed. He was found dead by ambulance crews. The local police decided there was no foul play, and it was just a kind of unexplained case that sometimes happens. And then we had this dramatic moment last year where professor Monique Simmonds, a botanist, presented the results of her test. It turned out that Perepilichny had traces of a rare fern that grows in the Himalayas called gelsemium elegans, used by Chinese and Russian assassins.

KELLY: This is not something...

HARDING: In our...

KELLY: This is not something you would find accidentally growing in your backyard.

HARDING: You can't get it at your drugstore, no. I mean, it's very hard to obtain, but it's also kind of remarkably lethal.

KELLY: This case has been winding its way through the English legal system since Perepilichny was found dead. We come to you at this moment because that was up pre-inquest review this week. Did we learn anything new?

HARDING: Well, we learned that all sides hate each other (laughter). It's very strange because I've also covered and written a book about the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, another Russian dissident and whistleblower who was murdered with radioactive polonium in 2006.

And with Litvinenko, we had another sensational finding by a Welsh judge that Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, had, open quotes, "probably approved," Litvinenko's execution. And with Perepilichny, it's as if the pieces had been thrown up in the air and landed differently. We have a widow who insists that her husband died of natural causes. We have the police who say the same. And also, we have the insurer who has been brought into this, too. Eight days before he died, Perepilichny ensured his life or 5 million pounds, about $8 million.

KELLY: So if this was in fact murder, who done it? Is there any actual evidence of the Kremlin's hand at work here?

HARDING: Perepilichny was involved in a very famous case where two $230 million were stolen allegedly by a group of very powerful Interior Ministry officials whose Swiss bank accounts were remarried managed by Mr. Perepilichny. And so he fed some of these bank account details to Swiss prosecutors who froze the accounts of some very powerful people in Moscow.

Now, what you have to understand is that it's OK to jump up and down and say Putin is Stalin. This is a new Cold War. People in Moscow, they don't care about that. What they care about are their secret Swiss bank accounts being frozen, which is precisely what happened. As soon as you interfere with the money stream, that becomes very, very dangerous indeed. And this, we think, is why he was killed.

KELLY: That's Luke Harding, speaking to us from London, where he's a foreign correspondent with The Guardian. The formal inquest into the death of Alexander Perepilichny is slated for September. Luke, thanks for talking to us.

HARDING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.