August 30, 2012 (TSR) – French prosecutors yesterday opened a murder investigation into the death of the veteran Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, who died in a military hospital near Paris in 2004.
The investigation follows a formal complaint by Mr Arafat’s widow after the discovery last month by a laboratory in Switzerland of substantial traces of the deadly poison polonium-210 on the Palestinian leader’s clothes.
Mr Arafat was said to have died of cirrhosis of the liver but his medical files have never been released by France. Conspiracy theories suggesting that he was murdered by Israeli intelligence or other enemies have swirled around the Middle East for the last eight years.
Samples of the clothes that he wore just before he was taken ill were sent to a laboratory in Lausanne earlier this year by the TV station Al Jazeera, with the co-operation of his widow and daughter. In early July, the laboratory, announced that it had detected significant traces of polonium-210, the substance used to poison the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.
As a result, Mr Arafat’s widow, Souha, made a formal complaint in France earlier this month. The state prosecution service in Nanterre, west of Paris, decided that there were sufficient grounds to open a criminal investigation for murder. One or more investigative magistrates will now be appointed to pursue the inquiry.
The Palestinian authority gave permission earlier this month for Mr Arafat’s body to be exhumed. Tests on his remains will be carried out by the same laboratory, the Institut de Radiophysique in Lausanne.
Mr Arafat, 75, was taken abruptly ill, with piercing pains in his lower body, in Ramallah in Palestine in November 2004. He lapsed into a coma and died several days later in the French military hospital at Percy near Paris after the then French President Jacques Chirac had offered France’s medical help.
Souha Arafat and her daughter, Zahwa, have called for the findings of the Swiss laboratory to be made available to French investigators as part of a “properly constituted judicial investigation”. Souha Arafat has also called on French authorities to release Mr Arafat’s medical files.
There have long been Palestinian suspicions that the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad assassinated Mr Arafat. The Institut de Radiophysique in Lausanne found that a urine stain in the Palestinian leader’s underwear registered 180 millibecquerels of polonium-210 – over 20 times the dose needed to kill.
Some of Mr Arfat’s symptoms, such as vomiting and cirrhosis, are the same as those from poisoning by polonium-210. At the time of Mr Litvinenko’s assassination in 2006, British investigators said that only a sophisticated operation by a state intelligence agency could obtain and use polonium-210 in a lethal form.
Under French law, it will be up to an investigating magistrate to decide whether firm evidence exists that Mr Arafat was murdered. If they find such evidence, they will recommend that the state prosecution service brings charges.
As leader of the militant Fatah movement, and then the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, Mr Arafat was the most visible face of Palestinian resistance for decades. He represented Palestine at the Oslo peace talks in 1993 and received a share of the Nobel Prize in 1994.
BACKGROUND: WHAT IS POLONIUM AND HOW IT CAN KILL?
WHAT IS POLONIUM?
Polonium-210 is one of the world’s rarest elements, discovered in 1898 by scientists Marie and Pierre Curie and named in honor of her country of origin, Poland. It occurs naturally in very low concentrations in the Earth’s crust and also is produced artificially in nuclear reactors. In small amounts, it has legitimate industrial uses, mainly in devices to eliminate static electricity.
IS IT DANGEROUS?
Very. If ingested, it is lethal in extremely small doses. Less than 1 gram (0.04 ounces) of the silver powder is sufficient to kill. A 2007 study by radiation experts from Britain’s Health Protection Agency concluded that once polonium-210 is deposited in the bloodstream, its potent effects are nearly impossible to stop. A poisoning victim would experience multiple organ failure as alpha radiation particles bombard the liver, kidneys and bone marrow from within. The symptoms shown by Litvinenko — nausea, hair loss, throat swelling and pallor — are also typical.
WHO CAN GET THEIR HANDS ON IT?
The good news — not too many people. The element can be a byproduct of the chemical processing of uranium, but usually is made artificially in a nuclear reactor or a particle accelerator. These nuclear facilities are monitored and tightly regulated under international agreements.
John Croft, a retired British radiation expert who worked on the Litvinenko case, said a dose large enough to kill would likely have to come from a government with either civilian or military nuclear capabilities. That category includes Russia — producer of the polonium believed to have killed Litvinenko — and Arafat’s foe, Israel. But it also includes dozens of other nations, including the United States.
WHY WOULD IT BE ATTRACTIVE TO ASSASSINS?
Polonium makes a good weapon. Its large alpha particles of radiation do not penetrate the skin and don’t set off radiation detectors, so it is relatively easy to smuggle across international borders. Polonium can be ingested through a wound or inhaled — but the surest method would be to have the victim consume it in food or drink. Litvinenko drank tea laced with polonium during a meeting at a luxury London hotel.
WHO HAS IT KILLED?
Polonium poisoning is so rare that it took doctors several weeks to diagnose Litvinenko’s illness and security experts struggled to think of a previous case. More than five years after Litvinenko’s death, no one has been arrested. British prosecutors have named ex-KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi as their chief suspect, but Russia refuses to hand him over.
Some speculate that the Curies’ daughter Irene, who died of leukemia, may have developed the disease after accidentally being exposed to polonium in the laboratory.
Israeli author Michal Karpin has claimed that the cancer deaths of several Israeli scientists were the result of a leak at the Weizmann Institute of Science in 1957. Israeli officials have never acknowledged a connection.
CAN SCIENTISTS PROVE WHETHER ARAFAT WAS POISONED WITH POLONIUM?
Scientists caution that traces on Arafat’s clothing aren’t sufficient proof of poisoning. Exhuming his body would a surer method. Derek Hill, a radiological science expert at University College London, said eight years after Arafat’s death in 2004, any polonium would have decayed and would be far less radioactive than it was at the time. But he says it would still be much higher than normal background levels, and with an autopsy it should be possible to tell “with a pretty high confidence” whether Arafat had polonium in his body when he died.
More about Polonium from Argonne National Laboratory, EVS here.