Yasser Arafat: Palestinians call for poison inquiry

Suha Arafat: ''We've been asking for this inquiry for eight years''

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Palestinian officials are calling for an international inquiry into former leader Yasser Arafat's death, over renewed claims that he was poisoned.

Swiss scientists told an al-Jazeera TV documentary the radioactive material polonium-210 was on belongings given to his widow after he died in 2004.

She objected to a post-mortem at the time, but now wants his body exhumed to enable further tests to be carried out.

Arafat's medical records say he had a stroke resulting from a blood disorder.

Arafat: The Swiss claims

  • "Unexplained, elevated" level of polonium-210 on Yasser Arafat's clothing, keffiyeh and toothbrush
  • Highest levels found on personal effects with bodily fluids such as blood, sweat and urine
  • Toothbrush measured 54 millibecquerels (mBq); underwear 180mBq compared with 6.7mBq from another man's specimen underwear
  • More than 60% of polonium was not from natural sources

Source: Al-Jazeera TV

Mr Arafat's former aide, Nabil Abu Rdeinah, who is now spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said "there is no religious or political reason that prevents further investigation into this matter, including exhuming his body" provided the request came from the former Palestinian leader's family.

Another senior Palestinian official, Saeb Erekat, said what was most important was to "secure an international investigation committee through the (UN) Security Council or the International Court of Justice to deal with the matter as a whole".

Many Palestinians continue to believe Arafat was poisoned by Israel, which saw Arafat as an obstacle to peace and had put him under house arrest. Israel has denied any involvement.

Others allege that he had Aids.

'Unexplained'

Arafat, who led the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) for 35 years and became the first president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1996, fell violently ill in October 2004 at his besieged West Bank compound.

Polonium-210

  • Highly radioactive and toxic element
  • Present in foods in low doses
  • Small amounts created naturally in the body
  • Can be manufactured using the bombardment of neutrons
  • Has industrial uses such as in anti-static devices
  • Very dangerous if significant dose ingested
  • External exposure not a risk, only if ingested
  • Present in tobacco

Two weeks later he was flown to a French military hospital in Paris, where he died on 11 November 2004 at the age of 75.

French doctors bound by privacy rules did not release information about Arafat's condition.

On Tuesday, al-Jazeera reported that the Institute of Radiation Physics (IRA) at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland had found "significant" traces of polonium-210 present in samples taken from Arafat's personal effects, including his trademark keffiyeh.

"I can confirm to you that we measured an unexplained, elevated amount of unsupported polonium-210 in the belongings of Mr Arafat that contained stains of biological fluids," Dr Francois Bochud, the director of the Institute of Radiation Physics, told al-Jazeera.

In some cases, the elevated levels were 10 times higher than those on control subjects, and most of the polonium could not have come from natural sources, the scientists said.

However, a spokesman for the institute, Darcy Christen, told the Reuters news agency that the clinical symptoms described in Arafat's medical records were not consistent with polonium-210 poisoning.

The former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko died of exposure to polonium-210 in London in 2006. The UK authorities have accused Andrei Lugovoi, an ex-KGB officer, of poisoning his tea.

International inquiry

To confirm the theory that Arafat was poisoned by polonium-210 it would be necessary to exhume and analyse his remains, Dr Bochud said.

Start Quote

An exhumation... should provide us with a sample that should have a very high quantity of polonium if he was poisoned”

End Quote Dr Francois Bochud Institute of Radiation Physics (IRA)

"If [Suha Arafat] really wants to know what happened to her husband [we need] to find a sample," he added. "An exhumation... should provide us with a sample that should have a very high quantity of polonium if he was poisoned."

Mrs Arafat confirmed that she would make such a request, telling al-Jazeera: "We have to go further and exhume Yasser Arafat's body to reveal the truth to the Muslim and Arab world."

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO's Executive Committee, said exhumation could take place if an international inquiry demanded it.

"We need to discuss this issue and look at it from all angles," Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO's Executive Committee, told the BBC.

"I think that if there is an international court case - and I think there should be - we should do everything we can to help the case, including exhuming the body of the late President Yasser Arafat, in order to reach a conclusion."

In 2005, the New York Times obtained a copy of Arafat's medical records, which it said showed he died of a massive haemorrhagic stroke that resulted from a bleeding disorder caused by an unknown infection.

Independent experts who reviewed the records told the paper that it was highly unlikely that he had died of Aids or had been poisoned.

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