Arafat's body to be exhumed after polonium discovery

Thu, Jul 5, 2012, 01:00

SENIOR PALESTINIAN official Saeb Erekat yesterday called for an international inquiry into the death of former president Yasser Arafat after Swiss investigators found traces of the radioactive element polonium in his personal effects.

Dr Erekat recommended the inquiry be modelled on the investigation of the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri. “It is a must. We will do it first through the security council. We hope everyone will co-operate with us because we seek the truth and nothing but the truth,” he said.

Following a nine-month investigation commissioned by Al- Jazeera, Dr Francois Bochud, director of the Institute of Radiation Physics at the University of Lausanne, said: “We measured an unexplained, elevated amount of unsupported polonium 210 in the belongings of Mr Arafat that contained biological fluids”.

Items tested by the institute included underwear, a toothbrush, and a trademark black-and-white checked headdress and astrakhan hat provided by his widow, Suha Arafat. Because levels of contamination were found to be 10 times higher than normal, the researchers concluded natural sources could not have been responsible.

To confirm polonium caused Mr Arafat’s death, Dr Bochud said it would be necessary to exhume his body to “provide . . . a sample that should have a very high quantity of polonium if he was poisoned” by the element.

Dr Bochud said this must be done quickly as polonium deteriorates over time. Polonium 201 has a half-life of 138 days. Mr Arafat died in November 2004.

Doctors in Lausanne and elsewhere have eliminated other possible causes of death, including liver cirrhosis, cancer and Aids.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas agreed Mr Arafat’s body should be exhumed, his spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said.

“There is no political or religious reason that prevents further investigation into this matter, including exhuming his body by a specialised and trusted party at the request of his family,” he said.

Mrs Arafat expressed gratitude to the Palestinian Authority for its co-operation and said she hoped Israel, which controls access to and from the West Bank, would not raise obstacles to the effort.

Mr Arafat fell ill in October 2004 while living under Israeli military siege in his West Bank compound and was airlifted to a French military hospital in Paris, where he died on November 11th, aged 75. No postmortem was performed even though Palestinian officials charged Israel with poisoning him.

Mr Arafat’s medical records showed he died of a haemorrhagic stroke resulting from an abnormally low platelet count that could not be explained.

Darcy Christen, spokesman for the Swiss institute, said Mr Arafat’s symptoms were not consistent with polonium-210 poisoning but cases are so rare symptoms have not fully been identified.

Former Russian intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko died in London in 2006 after allegedly ingesting polonium put in his tea by a former Soviet spy. Between 1957 and 1969 several deaths from polonium poisoning were recorded at the Weizmann institute in Israel.