By Marilyn Tomlins.
Was Yasser Arafat murdered with Polonium-210?
When controversial leaders die suddenly there are always rumours of assassination.
On November 11, 2004 Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian people for 35 years and president of the Palestinian Authority since 1996, succumbed in Paris in the military hospital of Percy in Clamart outside Paris, and rumours of assassination circulated yet again.
One rumour was that he had died of AIDS, called SIDA, in France. Another more reasonable rumour was that he had been ill for some time with stomach or lung cancer.
Yet, another rumour, especially in the Arab world, was that the Israelis had poisoned him.
In July this year an Al-Jazeera documentary raised the issue that Arafat might indeed have been poisoned. No culprit was named.
The television network had hired Swiss scientists from the Lausanne University Institute of Radiation Physics who had made an analysis of the clothing Arafat had worn at the time of his death. According to those scientists they had found traces of the radio-active polonium-210 on a urine stain on his underpants. Also on his trademark keffiyeh.
Arafat’s widow Suha, daughter Zawra, and the Palestinian Authority wanted further analyses to be done and invited the Swiss scientists to come to Ramallah where Arafat’s remains are buried. Mrs. Arafat wanted the French to participate in what would be the exhumation of her husband’s body followed by a more in-depth analysis.
In accordance with French law, for France to participate Mrs. Arafat had to file a civil complaint asking for France to open a murder investigation. This she did at the end of July.
Yesterday – Tuesday, August 28, 2012 – France responded favourably to the widow’s request and opened a murder enquiry at the Court of Law of Nanterre outside Paris.
At the moment of writing the man and team who are to lead the investigation have not yet been announced.
French justice is however slow and this means that days and perhaps even weeks would go by before a team of French scientists along with their Swiss colleagues would be able to set off for Ramallah for the exhumation of Arafat’s remains. Even more weeks, even months, would go by before we would have the result of their analyses.
Then only, and only if the polonium-210 test proved positive, would the French be able to investigate who had administered it to Arafat. He had fallen ill in Palestine, therefore the deadly substance would have been administered to him there, and not in the military hospital in Paris. This will undoubtedly handicap the French investigation, because France would not have jurisprudence to investigate on Israeli territory.
Israel through its Foreign Ministry reacted immediately on the announcement of the French enquiry. Said spokesperson Yigal Palmor to Associated Press: “It’s not really our concern because the complaint is not lodged against Israel. If there is an investigation, we hope that it will shed light on the matter.”
The Palestinian reaction was shorter and firmer. Said Saeb Erakat, senior aide to Palestian President Mahmoud Abbas, in an interview with Agence France Presse, the French news agency: “We welcome this decision.”
There is a famous case of polonium-210 poisoning. In 2008 former KGB agent and defector, the 44-year-old Alexander Litvinenko, fell ill with severe diarrhoea and vomiting after a meal in a London restaurant – he been given asylum by the United Kingdom and lived in London – with an Italian ‘nuclear waste expert’, Mario Scaramelle. Before he had the meal he had had a meeting in a hotel with two former KGB officers, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun. They had coffee and cakes.
After several weeks of illness, he had photos taken of him on his death bed in hospital, saying: “I want the world to see what they did to me”.
No-one was prosecuted for the poisoning of Litvinenko.
Arafat was flown to Paris from a hospital in Tunisia where he had been taken after he had fallen ill with severe diarrhoea, vomiting and abdominal pain after an evening meal in Ramallah.
A report of his condition drawn up by the Percy military hospital and dated November 14, 2004 – three days after Arafat’s death – has been leaked by the website salte.fr.
According to the report, Arafat, 75, suffered from a blood condition: thrombocytopenia – an abnormally low platelet count. It was caused by an intestinal inflammation associated with an intra-vascular coagulation. The intestinal inflammation, in turn, could have been caused by ‘toadstool’ poisoning.
During the Cold War era both the Soviet Union and the United States built up large stockpiles of polonium-210. It is still being produced as a by-product of the nuclear power industry. Exact figures are not available but reports of how much polonium-210 exists currently range from between 500 and 1000 tonnes.
Polonium-210 gathers in one’s bones. Arafat’s bones are therefore needed for the analysis. The question now being asked is: would his bones still be in a condition that would allow analyses.