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Russia mocks British paranoia over ex-spy's poisoning

A deeper dive into the day's most notable stories with The National newsletter's Jonathon Gatehouse.

Newsletter: A deeper dive into the day's most notable stories

Hazmat-suit-wearing investigators walk away after covering the bench in the Maltings shopping centre in Salisbury, England, where former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were found critically ill last Sunday. ((Andrew Matthews/PA via AP))

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  • British learns new details in Russian ex-spy's poisoning
  • North and South Korean camaraderie shows signs of flagging
  • Andrew Chang on a mobile stroke unit

Britain examines spy poisoning, Russia mocks

In the wake of a police officer's serious illness, U.K. authorities are re-examining their theories about where and how a former Russian double agent was poisoned with a nerve agent.

Sergei Skripal, a 66-year-old ex-colonel with Russian military intelligence, was discovered slumped over and unresponsive on a bench outside of a shopping mall in Salisbury, England, last Sunday, alongside his unconscious 33-year-old daughter, Yulia.

For days, police have been painstakingly reconstructing the pair's movements that afternoon by canvassing witnesses and examining CCTV footage. An Italian restaurant where they ate lunch has been taken over by hazmat-suit-wearing experts, as has the local pub where they stopped for a pint.

Former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, seen in a Moscow courtroom in 2006, was pardoned in 2010 by then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. (Misha Japaridze/Associated Press)

But now police have switched their focus to Skripal's house nearby, cordoning off the property and erecting forensic tents in his garden, trying to establish if the nerve agent was delivered at home — perhaps inadvertently.

Almost two dozen first responders and medical staff came in contact with Skripal and his daughter in the minutes after they fell violently ill. But only one, Det.-Sgt. Nick Bailey, also became sick from the deadly toxin. And Bailey was the first policeman to visit Skripal's home.

Former London police chief Ian Blair told BBC radio that the policeman's illness is an important "clue." And the Times newspaper reports that investigators are now examining whether Yulia, who was visiting from Moscow, might have unknowingly brought the nerve agent along, perhaps hidden in some food or drink, or maybe a gift.

Bailey remains in serious condition, but is now able to speak. Skripal and his daughter are still critically ill and being treated in intensive care.

Back in 2006, a Russian court sentenced Skripal to 13 years in jail for "high treason," finding that he had been passing sensitive information to MI6, the British intelligence service, in exchange for cash since the early 1990s.

Det.-Sgt. Nick Bailey was the police officer who visited Sergei Skripal's house, which could help explain why he is the only individual aside from Skripal and his daughter to remain in hospital. (Wiltshire Police via AP)

He was pardoned by then-Russian president Dmitry Medvedev in July 2010 and flown to Vienna, Austria, where he and three other accused spies were swapped for 10 deep-cover "sleeper agents" that the Russians had placed in the United States.

Skripal moved to the U.K., where he was debriefed for several weeks by British intelligence. It has since emerged that one of the agents involved in the questioning was Christopher Steele, the former MI6 spy who went on to work as a private investigator, compiling the infamous Donald Trump-Russia dossier.

It's unclear how Skripal ended up in Salisbury, a sleepy cathedral town about two hours southwest of London and near the Stonehenge ruins. But he didn't seem to be hiding and was living a peaceful life under his own name.

British authorities have voiced their suspicions of Russian involvement, but have yet to come out and accuse the Kremlin of trying to assassinate a UK resident on British soil.

For their part, the Russians appear to be openly mocking efforts to link their government to the case, painting it as some sort of Western conspiracy.

Last night, a Russian state TV anchor took evident delight in Skripal's illness.

"The profession of a traitor is one of the most dangerous in the world. It's very rare that those who had chosen it have lived in peace until a ripe old age," said Kirill Kleimenov, the host of Channel One's main evening news broadcast. He then added a warning to people "who hate their country."

"Don't choose Britain as a place to live. Something is wrong there. Maybe it's the climate, but in recent years, there have been too many strange incidents with grave outcomes there," said Kleimenov.

The investigation in Salisbury continues today with 180 chemical-warfare-trained members of the British military assisting police in removing objects, like the park bench, and securing vehicles that the Skripals came in contact with on Sunday.

At the local hospital, a police car was carefully placed on a flatbed truck and driven away.

It was the one Det.-Sgt. Bailey had been driving Sunday afternoon.

A note to readers

The National Today is taking a Jimmy Buffett-style Spring Break next week. The newsletter will return Monday, March 19.

Fading Olympic spirit

Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are making nice.

But that doesn't mean that everything is going well between North and South Korea.

The two Koreas will not field a unified team at the 2018 Paralympics, nor did they march together in this morning's opening ceremonies in Pyeongchang, all because they can't agree on a flag.

The two countries had competed together under a "unification" banner at last month's Winter Games — a white flag with a blue silhouette of the Korean Peninsula.

Members of North Korea's Paralympic team marched separately from their South Korean counterparts in the opening ceremony of the Winter Paralympic Games in Pyeongchang. (Thomas Lovelock/Reuters)

But the flag, which had been in use since the beginning of the 1990s, when North and South first joined together to compete at the World Table Tennis Championships, proved unpalatable to other Olympic guests.

The flag depicts the two Koreas as one, undivided entity. But Japan lodged an official protest over the inclusion of a small blue dot at the eastern edge of the peninsula, representing a group of disputed islands that it claims as its own territory.

Dokdo, as these islands are known in Korean, are controlled by the South. The rapidly eroding rocky outcrops are home to two civilians, a half-dozen government employees and 40 members of the South Korean Coast Guard. Japan claims the islands, formerly known as the Liancourt Rocks, as its own and calls them "Takeshima."

Oddly, it appears to be the North that has the problem with the idea of a Dokdo-less flag.

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea "cannot accept the fact that it is not allowed to display Dokdo in the unification flag during the Games," an official of the Korea Paralympic Committee, explained yesterday.

These Paralympics, which run from March 9 to 19, are set to be the largest Winter ones yet, with 670 athletes (100 more than in Sochi) battling it out for 240 medals in six sports.
This year marks the first time North Korea has taken part in the Winter Paralympic Games. (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

Canada has sent a team of 55, its biggest-ever Winter squad, led by flag-bearer Brian McKeever, a 13-time Paralympic medalist.

Pyeongchang will mark the first time that North Korea has joined in the Winter version. The DPRK's 24-person delegation boasts six athletes, although only two of them — cross-country skiers Kim Jong-hyon and Ma Yu-chol — have qualified for competition.

Over the past decade, the UN and international human rights organizations have questioned North Korea's treatment of disabled people. And there have been horrific claims of abuse made by defectors, including tales of euthanasia, medical experimentation and forced sterilization.

North Korea has dismissed the mistreatment allegations as "absurd," but the international publicity they received seems to have had an effect. State television began broadcasting documentaries about the lives of disabled people and government efforts to help them. And last spring, Kim Jong-un's regime invited Catalina Devandas-Aguilar, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, for a visit.

Her report, and recommendations, are due later this month.

Find full schedules and follow all the CBC's Paralympics coverage here. And watch for prime-time encore coverage of the Opening Ceremony tonight at 8 p.m.

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Andrew Chang on assignment

The majority of the time, strokes don't kill people. They disable them.

"You may not be able to walk. You may not be able to go out and shop. You may not be able to go to the bathroom yourself. You may not be able to dress yourself," says Dr. James Grotta, a neurologist based in Houston who treats stroke victims.

For years, he's been spearheading an experiment: finding and treating stroke victims before they even get to a hospital.

It's a tricky equation. Stroke treatment requires a brain image from a CT scan so that doctors know what kind of stroke they're dealing with, for example. Administer the wrong treatment, and you could inadvertently speed up the very process that's killing your patient.

Dr. James Grotta, left, a neurologist based in Houston who treats stroke victims, shows CBC's Andrew Chang the inside of the Mobile Stroke Unit. (CBC)

Complicating matters is the fact that time is always against you. Every minute blood isn't getting to the brain, millions of brain cells die. And those losses are irreversible.

So how do you treat a stroke on a sidewalk, in a parking garage, in an office building or at a gas station — sometimes even before the patients themselves realize they're having a stroke?

Enter the Mobile Stroke Unit, Dr. Grotta's ambitious — and expensive — solution.

He's managed to pack everything he needs into a single, retrofitted ambulance, including drugs, a full stroke team, even a miniaturized CT scanner.

Gabriela Bowden, a university teacher, is one of the more than 400 people who have benefited from the MSU in the past few years. In Bowden's case, it was an alert student who recognized she needed help.

Just as class was starting, Bowden was acting strangely — she seemed disoriented, unable to speak. The student called 9-1-1. A regular ambulance arrived, but with stroke symptoms apparent, the MSU was dispatched, too. It turned out to be an ischemic stroke, a blocked artery preventing blood from getting to the brain.

She was treated in an hour. In hospital for two days. And, the most incredible part: back to work in a week.

Watch Andrew Chang's story on the Mobile Stroke Unit tonight on CBC's The National.

Quote of the moment

"I am highly confident that at all times Mr. Trump knew exactly what was going on."

Michael Avenatti, the lawyer representing Stormy Daniels, on claims that a $130,000 US "hush money" payment to stop the adult-film actress from talking about an alleged affair was made without the president's knowledge.

What The National is reading

  • As bombs fall, Syrians wait in fear in Eastern Ghouta basements (CBC)
  • Calif. 14-year-old arrested for impersonating cop, making traffic stops (NPR)
  • Traitors are not safe on British soil, says Russia (The Times)
  • Sydney Tower Skywalk closed after fatal plunge (Sydney Morning Herald)
  • An ancient Tuscan village is reshaped by migration (NY Times)
  • Philippine President Duterte needs psychiatric evaluation, says UN chief (Guardian)
  • Cranberries releasing final album with Dolores O'Riordan (CNN)
  • Burger-flipping robot forced to take a break because it's too slow (BBC)

Today in history

March 9, 1984: All dolled up with Barbie

Thirty-four years ago, Barbie was still in her prime, celebrating her 25th birthday. So Take 30 host Harry Brown invited Dana Horan, a 10-year-old with 340 of the dolls in her collection, to explain the fascination. She liked all the "fancy stuff," and particularly the new Barbie with crystal shoes. What about Ken? "He makes a good waiter at McDonald's." No mention of Frida Kahlo.

Toys and Games: All dolled up with Barbie

38 years ago
Duration 5:07
The fashion doll that took the world by storm celebrates 25 years. 5:07

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Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.