Asia Pacific

Tantalizing test results raise key issue: Who killed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat?

Forensic tests on the exhumed remains of former Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat, who died in November 2004, have shown unexpectedly high levels of radioactive substance polonium-210, which may support theories that he was poisoned. Arafat is shown here attending prayers in 2002 at his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah. (Photo: Chris Hondros Getty Images)New test results on the remains of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat "moderately support" the proposition that he died of Polonium-210 poisoning, but avoids the most tantalizing question of all: If it was murder, who did it?
 
Arafat died in November 2004 in a French hospital after falling ill, with vomiting and stomach pains, after eating at his headquarters in Ramallah, on the West Bank. The official cause of death was a massive stroke, but no autopsy was carried out.
 
The tests were conducted by 10 experts at the Vaudois University Hospital Center in Lausanne, Switzerland, on remains extracted from Arafat's grave in Ramallah, on the West Bank, in 2012.
 
Similar tests were also carried out by Russian and French experts.
 
The Russian findings, Al Jazeera reported Friday, were "inconclusive," finding "radioactive background" on only one of four fragments.
 
The multiple tests were triggered by a year-long investigation by Al-Jazeera, including a forensic examination of some of the Palestinian leader's clothing, that suggested a suspicious cause of death, prompting France to open a murder investigation.
 
The Swiss experts this week carefully hedged their findings, which included at least 18 times the normal levels of radioactive polonium in Arafat's remains.
 
On the other hand, the degradation of Polonium-210 over eight years and the quality of the forensic samples made a definitive conclusion difficult.
 
"Our observations are coherent with a hypothesis of poisoning, in any case more consistent than with the opposite hypothesis (of no poisoning)," Patrice Mangin, director of the hospital's center of legal medicine, told reporters.
 
The head of the Swiss team, Francois Bochud, said on Thursday: "Was polonium the cause of the death for certain? The answer is no, we cannot show categorically that hypothesis that the poisoning caused was this or that."
 
Here is what the official report, posted by Al Jazeera, concluded:
 
"Taking into account the analytical limitations aforementioned, mostly time lapse since death and the nature and quality of the specimens, the results moderately support the proposition that the death was the consequence of poisoning with polonium-210."
Although the French report is being withheld pending the outcome of the French murder investigation, the Russian report was leaked to Al Jazeera, which published its findings on Friday.
 
While Al-Jazeera said the findings were "inconclusive," the news agency's source quoted lab personnel as saying they had received clear instructions from the Russian Foreign Ministry on how the final report should look.
 
The source tells Al Jazeera, "Russia's goal was to fulfill the Palestinian Authority's request, not offend Israel by helping the PA, and not create a new hotbed in the Middle East."
 
Arafat's widow Suha, has little doubt that murder was involved, telling Reuters in Paris, "We are revealing a real crime, a political assassination."
 
If Arafat's death was indeed intentional, the list of possible culprits is narrow:
 
1) Arafat's inner circle. As leader of the Palestinian Authority, he had control over vast sums of money, particularly aid from foreign governments. Arafat's widow tells Reuters the polonium must have been administered by someone "in his close circle" because experts had told her the poison would have been put in his coffee, tea or water. She did not accuse any country or person, and noted that he had many enemies.
 
2) Israel. Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister at the time of Arafat's death, viewed him as a terrorist and an obstacle to peace. Sharon had stated publicly he regretted not "eliminating" Arafat during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
 
Tawfik Terawi, the head of the Palestinian committee, told reporters in Ramallah on Friday, that he directly blames Israel for Arafat's death. "It is not important that I say here that he was killed by polonium,'' he said. "But I say, with all the details available about Yasser Arafat's death, that he was killed and that Israel killed him." He offered no proof to support his charge.
 
The counter argument is that Arafat's influence had greatly waned by the time of his death, which would have complicated relations in the region if he had been killed.
 
In any case, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told the BBC this week, "I will state this as simply and clearly as I can: Israel did not kill Arafat, period. And that's all there is to it,"
 
3) Russia. This theory has less to do with motive than means. Moscow is clearly adept at the use of Polonium-210 as a poison. A defecting Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko, drank a fatal cup laced with the radioactive material in London in 2006. A dying Litvinenko accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of ordering his murder. The Soviet Union was still a key supporter Arafat at the time of his death, but conspiracy theorists could easily envision a rogue agent aiding one or more faction.
 
Dave Barclay, a renowned British forensic scientist and retired detective, told Al Jazeera that after the latest tests, he is fully convinced that Arafat was murdered.
 
"Yasser Arafat died of polonium poisoning," he said. "We found the smoking gun that caused his death. What we don't know is who's holding the gun at the time."

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