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By Lizzie Edmonds
PUBLISHED: 16:06 GMT, 26 March 2014
- Boris Berezovsky, 67, found dead at luxury property in Ascot last year
- At inquest today, his bodyguard said he was ‘very low’ before his death
- Added he was acting strangely and regularly spoke of suicide
- Death came months after he lost legal battle with billionaire Abramovich
- Bodyguard’s wife said Mr Berezovsky ‘looked broken’ following case
Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky was a ‘broken man’ after losing a multi-billion pound legal battle with Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich, his inquest has heard.
Mr Berezovsky, 67, was found dead by his bodyguard at his ex-wife’s luxury property in Ascot, Berkshire, on March 23 last year.
His death came months after his lengthy private litigation case with billionaire Mr Abramovich ended in defeat – costing him millions of pounds and altering his personality, the hearing was told.
Avi Navama, Mr Berezovsky’s bodyguard of six years, told the inquest at Windsor Guildhall that he was ‘very low’ and ‘depressed’ in the last four months of his life but seemed ‘different’ in the final two days before he died.
Speaking of when he last saw him, the night before he died, Mr Navama said: ‘He looked at me with very low, tired eyes. Like he doesn’t know what to do.’
He said that later that night he collected Mr Berezovsky’s son, Gleb, from school and got a text from his boss thanking him, which he thought ‘strange’.
Mr Navama’s wife, Zoe Watson, also described changes in Mr Berezovsky’s behaviour – saying ‘he looked broken’ and ‘was having panic attacks and heart palpitations’ after the case with Mr Abramovich.
However, Ms Besharova, Mr Berezovsky’s former wife insisted she did not think the tycoon was going to end his own life.
Later, Michael Cotlick, Mr Berezovsky’s legal adviser, said tycoon had spoken of suicide since October 2012 – but he had not taken him seriously. He also played down the impact the Ambramocivh trial had on the tycoon.
Police confirmed the Russian’s cause of death was ‘consistent with hanging’.
Detectives said today they found a fingerprint on the shower rail in Boris Berezovsky’s bathroom, the coroner heard.
No note was found at the scene, officers said, before confirming his death was treated as ‘unexplained’ at first.
The inquest, heard in front of Berkshire Coroner Peter Bedford, continues tomorrow.
She said the former Kremlin insider had been a ‘welcoming, very generous and kind’ man before the court case – which found in favour of Mr Abramovich over a £3 billion debt dispute.
She said following the case, employees at the Ascot estate became concerned about the impact the case would have on them, speaking of concerns for their jobs in the wake of the legal battle’s crippling effect on Mr Berezovsky’s fortune.
The former bodyguard of Boris Berezovsky, Avi Navama (left) arrives for the inquest into the death of his boss today. He told the Coroner the tycoon (right) was ‘very low’ in the days before his death
Elizaveta Berezovskaya, daughter of the tycoon arrives for the inquest. Today, his bodyguard spoke of the moment he found his former employer dead at his ex-wife’s home in Ascot
In her statement, Mrs Watson said her concerns deepened on a trip with her husband and his employer to Israel.
The hearing was told: ‘Mr Berezovsky regularly went to his room. His head was in his hands. He was pale and shaking.
‘He looked broken. I saw he was taking strong anti-depressant medicine. He was having panic attacks and heart palpitations.’
PARAMEDIC’S DOUBT OVER HANGING
Mystery continues to surround the death of Mr Berezovsky as a paramedic who attended him yesterday described the ‘strange’ and ‘unusual’ scene on discovering his body.
John Pocock said: ‘Normally when we go to patients in those circumstances they tend to be quite pale. I felt that the colour was quite a deep purple colour.’
He said he became suspicious as he did not believe the shower rail to have been strong enough to support the tycoon’s body and he found him to be lying in too neat a position for someone who had hanged themselves.
‘I decided this was a suspicious death, a potential crime scene and asked the bodyguard to move away,’ he said.
Mr Pocock also told how his personal radiation alarm began to sound when he was at the scene and he was warned to get off the property. But chemical sweeps came up negative.
The inquest also heard that detectives have been unable to identify a fingerprint found on the shower rail.
Mrs Watson said she had become aware Mr Berezovsky had discussed suicide with one of his children at that time.
Mr Bedford said he acknowledged that the witness had only met her husband’s employer ‘about eight times’, and added: ‘Her knowledge of Mr Berezovsky is very limited but it is interesting to note the change of personality.’
Mr Navama said today his boss had talked frankly and openly about suicide.
The witness said: ‘He was very down. I realised he was depressed. I was very concerned that he would do something to himself.
The bodyguard said that ahead of losing the court battle with Mr Abramovich, Mr Berezovsky was a ‘very active person, very dynamic’.
‘He didn’t sleep much,’ he added. ‘After the verdict Mr Berezovsky was very depressed. He took, as far as I know, anti-depressants.
‘His routine changed completely. He used to stay inside all the time in his room.’
Asked by the coroner whether Mr Berezovsky’s mental health was a consequence of the fall-out from the Abramovich case, Mr Navama said: ‘It was the trigger of the change. There were several things that Mr Berezovsky said had litigations against him.
‘He told me he was in minus £200 million that he can’t pay to people. He would say he’s not a billionaire, he’s the poorest man in the world.’
Mr Navama dismissed suggestions put by the coroner on behalf of Mr Berezovsky’s family that the bodyguard had exaggerated their relationship.
He also described how his employer’s mental state ‘fluctuated’.
Mr Navama said: ‘Two months prior, Mr Berezovsky called me and said “good morning, I’m back to normal”.
‘I said “that’s great, such good news”. Then I came back later and saw him in the same state (as before).’
Asked by Mr Bedford to offer a suggestion to the cause of Mr Berezovsky’s death, Mr Navama replied: ‘I believe suicide.’
Michael Cotlick, Mr Berezovsky’s legal adviser, told the inquest the tycoon had spoken of suicide since October 2012 but he had not taken him seriously.
He said because he spoke of the matter to ‘almost everybody’ he did not think he would really do it.
Mr Cotlick, who had worked for the oligarch since 2005, said he was aware he was on anti-depressants but Mr Berezovsky had told him they were having adverse effects on his liver, so he stopped taking them days before he died.
He described how Mr Berezovsky fled Russia after falling out with the Kremlin and being the subject of arrest warrants
He was granted political asylum in the UK in September 2003.
Mr Cotlick confirmed his boss was an associate of KGB spy-turned-dissident Alexander Litvinenko, who died from radioactive polonium-210 poisoning in November 2006.
He said Mr Berezovsky survived a number of assassination attempts, including a car bombing which killed his chauffeur and left him seriously injured in 1994, and another that was foiled in summer 2007
Mr Berezovsky was on anti-depressants and spoke to ‘almost anybody’ about suicide, the inquest heard
But Mr Cotlick said that losing the case against Mr Abramovich made him less of a target as the damage to his reputation reduced his power and influence.
He said another big blow to his employer was when his partner Elena Gorbunova – who had sat at his side throughout much of his battle with Mr Abramovich – filed a financial claim against him which had the potential to financially ruin him.
Mr Cotlick said his friend changed his will nine days before his death, but also made several plans for meetings and appointments for after March 23.
The witness played down the significance of the private litigation with the Chelsea owner.
He said: ‘Nobody took the outcome of the Abramovich trial seriously. There’s only one explanation – that’s suicide. If somebody told me before that he would end his life, I would never believe it. Looking back on the past year, I think that’s the only explanation.’
Mr Berezovsky’s former wife, Ms Besharova, said she did not believe the businessman and politician would kill himself.
In a statement, Ms Besharova said she spoke with her ex-husband every day, including the evening before his death.
The pair had been due to speak on March 23, but Mr Berezovsky’s phone went to voicemail.
She said: ‘My former husband did not plan to kill himself. He knew my children were coming to the house (that weekend). I also cannot believe he would commit suicide. He’s suffered from depression and had lost a very high profile court case.’
She said the court action from Ms Gorbunova had prompted him to start taking medication for depression.
In a written statement, Ms Gorbunova said she had been in a relationship with Mr Berezovsky for 21 to 22 years but they had been going through a ‘commercial dispute over assets and finances’ before he died, which they hoped to settle outside of the courts.
She said they spoke on the phone for 20 minutes on the night before his body was found, mainly about their daughter.
Her statement said that, when she last saw him a week earlier, he had not given any indication that he would take his life but was aware of his depression.
Medical professionals, in statements to police, spoke of Mr Berezovsky’s failure to keep appointments after initial consultation, particularly for psychological problems.
But they said that, when the tycoon did attend, there was not enough to suggest he could be sectioned under the Mental Health Act, the hearing was told.
Consultant psychiatrist Elza Eapen said, after a meeting following the conclusion of the Abramovich trial: ‘He described himself as depressed, and said the shock of losing the court case added to a number of stresses in his life.
‘Now he was destroyed and he no longer felt at risk. He said he went from being a billionaire to having nothing.’
Psychiatrist Dr Saeed Islam said Mr Berezovsky ‘perceived relentless pressure on him in terms of litigation and fear of losing those cases’.
He said he also spoke of ‘enemies in Russia who were trying to destroy him and make him homeless’.
Dr Islam told the inquest that Mr Berezovsky described feeling very low and told him: ‘I can’t see a way out.’
But he said that although Mr Berezovsky had suicidal thoughts, he said it was not an option due to his Russian Orthodox beliefs and his family.
The inquest heard today how Mr Navama said he phoned the ambulance at around 3pm on March 23 after getting no response from his employer all day.
The bodyguard said he had concerns that Mr Berezovsky might have harmed himself based on previous talk of suicide.
He said he wanted a member of the emergency services with him if he was to make the discovery.
He told the hearing: ‘I worked with him for more than six years – I spent more time with him than my wife. I considered him family. I had a very bad feeling that he might have killed himself.’
Mr Navama said there were ’30 activities’ on Mr Berezovsky’s phone when he went to his room, and assumed he was locked in the bathroom.
After deciding to break down the door, the bodyguard said he found his employer ‘lying on his back’.
He told the hearing: ‘I checked to see if there was any kind of pulse.
‘I put my ear next to his mouth and was looking at his chest. I couldn’t find a pulse.’
The bodyguard added Mr Berezovsky’s body looked ‘very peaceful’.
The inquest heard after leading the paramedic to the body, Mr Navama was told they must leave the property due to a ‘radiation alert’.
He said the paramedic returned to his vehicle and sat inside with the windows closed.
Detectives told the inquest they have been unable to identify a fingerprint found on the shower rail in Boris Berezovsky’s bathroom, the coroner heard.
Officers have sent the images to agencies, including Interpol and the FBI, without success.
The coroner was told that Mr Berezovsky’s palm prints were found on the rail, where part of the ligature was attached.
They were unable to say how long the unidentified print had been on the rail.
Bodyguard Mr Navama said he returned inside and Mr Berezovsky’s ex-wife, Galina Besharova, had also arrived.
He said that when Ms Besharova saw the body she started shouting, calling out: ‘Why? Why? Why?’
Mr Navama said: ‘Then I realised that, okay, I need to step in. I didn’t want the children to see their father dead.’
Mr Bedford asked: ‘Any subsequent issue that he may have faked his own death and may have been alive and well somewhere is frankly preposterous, is it?’
The bodyguard said: ‘It’s impossible.’
Detective Inspector Mark Bissell, of Thames Valley Police, said the death was initially treated as ‘unexplained’.
Asked by the coroner if officers had reason to suspect foul play due to Mr Berezovsky’s position, Mr Bissell told the inquest that they took into account that he was a ‘high-profile individual’ and a ‘formidable and powerful businessman’ with ‘membership within the higher echelons of the political spectrum in Russia’.
Mr Bissell said that, due to the radiation concerns, the Atomic Weapons Establishment attended to examine the scene. But he said nothing was detected and it was discovered that the paramedic’s device was faulty.
Mr Bissell also confirmed that no suicide note was found at the scene.
He said analysis of Mr Berezovsky’s iPhone showed he did not text or email anyone about his intentions in the hours before his death, but wrote of looking forward to a pending trip to Israel.
The detective told the inquest that his team carried out ‘proportionate’ inquiries into subsequent claims that the oligarch was assassinated and that his death was faked, but nothing untoward was found and suicide was concluded.
He confirmed that Mr Berezovsky’s financial position was deemed to be ‘complicated’.
The inquest was adjourned until 10 am tomorrow.