Dan Wootton clashed with former Kremlin adviser Alexander Nekrassov over the bizarre interview the suspects of the Salisbury novichok poisonings gave to Russia Today on Thursday.
Nekrassov joined Wootton on the talkRADIO drivetime show to discuss the interview, in which Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov - which they said were their real names - claimed to be sports nutrition salesmen who visited Salisbury to see its “famous” cathedral.
They denied being spies for Russian intelligence agency the GRU, as Theresa May accused them of, and were also quizzed by RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan on why they were “always together”.
- Read more: Novichok suspects appear on Russia Today: 'We visited Salisbury as tourists'
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Many viewers took her line of questioning to be an inference the pair were gay. She later tweeted: “Guys, I don’t know if they are gay”.
Nekrassov referenced her insinuations in a tweet he told Wootton was “a joke”.
“The feeling in Russia is that two gay men went to Britain for a bit of hanky-panky and got busted as secret agents trying to poison Scripal [sic]. The conclusion: homophobia by the British state,” he wrote.
'If they were gay, they wouldn't go to Salisbury. They didn't even check out Soho!'
The suspects appear on Russia Today. Image: Russia Today
“I know many people have been laughing at this farcical interview that Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov gave to the Russian propaganda network RT,” said Wootton.
“But we need to remember that what happened in Salisbury is an outrage. While the Russians might be laughing at us, they cannot pass off the actions of this attempted assassination as a joke.”
“There’s also the suggestion that these two men are gay,” he continued. "In Russia, homosexuality is illegal, it’s very scary to be a gay man.
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“But the claims made by the journalist who interviewed them for RT - and she’s clearly sanctioned by the government - is that they travelled to London as a gay couple.
“As a gay man myself, if you travel to London, you’re not going to leave to go to Salisbury. They didn’t even check out Soho!”
Having homosexual relationships is not illegal in Russia, however “gay propaganda” was outlawed in 2013 when Russia’s child protection act was amended to make the “propagandising of non-traditional sexual relations among minors” illegal.
Homosexuality in private between consenting adults was decriminalised in Russia in 1993.
'That's not how secret agents behave'
Nekrassov, who said there was “no proof” the men were guilty of the poisoning, claimed to Wootton that RT was no different to the BBC in that it’s funded by the state.
“When we say Russian state TV channel, BBC is a state channel as well. Channel 4 is a state channel. It means nothing,” he said.
He added that the men’s behaviour was not what he’d expect from secret agents: “I have no idea who they are.
“But what I’ve seen on television, I do not think they’re secret agents. That’s not how secret agents behave. Tourists behave like that, tourists are very strange when they go to another country.”
'Forensic evidence means nothing'
The perfume bottle the suspects allegedly transported the novichok in. Image: Metropolitan Police
"The only evidence that you actually have [that they’re innocent], is to say that you’ve seen this interview and you don’t think they’re acting like secret agents!” Wootton challenged.
“ I’ve seen nothing to prove their guilt. The forensic evidence means nothing,” Nekrassov replied.
“When they put the poison on the door handle, the Skripals were already away, so someone else poisoned them somewhere else.
- Read more: UK novichok allegations backed by allies
- Read more: Theresa May: Novichok suspects will 'face justice' if they travel outside Russia
“We need to assume they’re innocent until they’re proven guilty in court.”
He added that the interview they gave was “odd.”
“I think it was a very confusing interview, they were talking about some things that were very odd. They were asked ‘what was your job’, and they because very evasive.
“They said it was some kind of sports nutrition. Agents would have had a beautiful story to tell, agents are not idiots, they’re trained.”
'You're taking the mickey out of the UK'
Watch: Alexander Nekrassov tells Dan Wootton to 'change his tone'
The exchange became heated when Wootton said the entire interview was a “propaganda play”.
“Do you not understand what is going on here? What your government has done is hang these two men out to dry,” he said, becoming audibly irate.
“You’ve discredited them, ruined their lives, claimed they’re gay in a country where homosexuality is illegal, and you’ve done that to try and discredit them because we have evidence [that] they are responsible for the murder. You’re taking the mickey out of the UK!”
“Nobody is taking the mickey. Nobody is laughing at the fact that chemical weapons were used and people died, they’re laughing at the way this investigation has been presented. We don’t know what kind of poison it was…”
When Wootton interrupted with “we have evidence”, Nekrassov shot back: “You have to change your tone talking to me, you’re a kid compared to me.”
“You have no proof,” he added. “You are pointing to certain facts that prove nothing. You’ve read papers I don’t even understand!”
'Are you proud of the UK invading Iraq?'
Watch: Nekrassov turns the conversation to the Iraq War
“Are you proud of your country?” asked Wootton.
“I’m proud of the people,” Nekrassov responded. “I don't like the Russian government. Nobody in Russia likes the Russian government.”
He then flipped the question on Wootton, asking: “Are you proud of your government invading Iraq and killing a million people?”
“We have a democracy, we voted that government out!” Wootton argued, before the conversation flipped back to the insinuations the men were gay.
“Surely if they were just two gay men looking for some hanky panky, they’d want to come back and clear their name,” Wootton said.
“I think they will, and I think they might sue your government,” said Nekrassov.
“I see no proof. These two men are being slandered. They at the moment are not guilty. If the police want to question them, they should. They have labelled them as people who tried to kill the Skripals and murdered one woman who was innocent. Nobody in the police investigated any other options, and there are many.
“If the Russian government is proven to have been involved in this, there should be consequences.