By The Associated Press
RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — The Palestinian president cleared the way Wednesday for a possible autopsy on Yasser Arafat’s remains, following a request from his widow after a Swiss lab said it found elevated levels of a lethal radioactive isotope on the longtime Palestinian leader’s belongings.
The developments have reignited a storm of speculation over what killed Arafat, who died on Nov. 11, 2004 at the age of 75 at a military hospital outside Paris after decades of fighting with Israel.
Arafat’s widow, Suha, who rejected an autopsy at the time of his death, said she wanted one done now in the wake of the lab’s findings, first reported by the Arab satellite TV station Al-Jazeera. In an interview with the station, she did not explain why she waited nearly eight years to have the belongings, including a toothbrush and a fur hat, tested.
French doctors said at the time that Arafat died of a massive brain hemorrhage – weeks after he fell violently ill at his West Bank compound.
Arafat had suffered intestinal inflammation, jaundice and a blood condition known as disseminated intravascular coagulation, or DIC, according to French medical records.
But the records were inconclusive about what brought about DIC, which has numerous causes including infections, colitis and liver disease. Outside experts who reviewed the records on behalf of The Associated Press were also unable to pinpoint the underlying cause.
The uncertainty prompted many in the Arab world to allege he was killed by Israel, which viewed him as an obstacle to a peace treaty. Israeli officials have vociferously denied any foul play.
Francois Bochud, who heads the Institute of Radiation Physics in Lausanne, Switzerland, told the AP on Wednesday that his lab examined belongings that Arafat’s widow said were used by Arafat in his final days, as well as others that he hadn’t worn.
Suha Arafat said the items were kept in a secure room at her attorney’s office in Paris after Arafat’s death and stayed there until Al-Jazeera approached the lab on her behalf at the beginning of this year, he added.
Experts found what Bochud characterized as “very small” quantities of polonium, an isotope that is naturally present in the environment.
But there were higher quantities of polonium in, for example, a urine stain on underwear worn by Arafat and a blood stain on hospital clothing than on belongings he hadn’t used, such as new and unworn socks stored in the same bag.
Polonium is best known for causing the death of Alexander Litvinenko, a one-time KGB agent turned critic of the Russian government, in London in 2006. Litvinenko ingested tea laced with the substance.
Bochud said an “elevated” level of more than 100 millibecquerel, a measurement of radioactivity, was found on belongings used by Arafat – compared with levels of some 10 millibecquerel in the reference samples.
This would not necessarily mean Arafat was poisoned, Bochud said, adding that it is not possible to say where the polonium might have originated.
“What is possible to say is that we have an unexplained level of polonium, so this clearly goes toward the hypothesis of a poisoning, but our results are clearly not a proof of any poisoning,” Bochud said by telephone from Switzerland.
Denis Gutierrez, a senior French military doctor, said he did not know whether French medics checked Arafat for polonium while he was at France’s Percy military hospital, and was unaware of anything about poisoning in the 558-page classified report on his death.
But Gutierrez said nothing was sent from the hospital to the Swiss lab, raising questions about the reliability of the belongings that were tested. “Samples taken in the hospital remain in the hospital,” he said.
Even if further testing does take place, the mystery surrounding Arafat’s death may never be solved.
Alastair Hay, professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Leeds in England, said bone marrow and hair samples should be tested for signs of poisoning.
“You don’t know much about the provenance of the clothing and whether it had been tampered with later on. You’d want to test the body,” he said.
But Bochud said Arafat’s medical records say his bone marrow was in good shape and he didn’t lose his hair, unlike in Litvinenko’s case.
In addition, polonium breaks down relatively quickly, meaning that after eight years, much of any sample would be gone. Also, Arafat’s condition in the French hospital briefly improved before sharply deteriorating in his final days. Such improvement might lean against poisoning as a cause.
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.
John Croft, a retired British radiation expert who worked for the British agency during the Litvinenko crisis, said a Polonium-210 sample large enough to kill would likely have to come from a government with either civilian or military nuclear capabilities.
“You would need to have access to very sophisticated facilities,” he said. That could indicate involvement by Israel, which has two nuclear research facilities, as well as dozens of other countries.
Croft said, however, that he was “not convinced” sufficient levels of the isotope would still be in Arafat’s remains to conclusively prove poisoning.
The widow’s call for an autopsy – to allow for more conclusive testing – put Arafat’s successor, President Mahmoud Abbas, in a bind. Digging up the remains of the still widely revered Arafat would go against the traditions of conservative Muslims and could stir angry protests. At the same time, refusing to exhume the body could be seen as an attempt by Abbas to block an investigation.
Arafat and his wife, a Christian, had lived apart for years before his death, and she did not return to the Palestinians territories afterward. She was widely unpopular among Palestinians, in part because of her penchant for a luxurious lifestyle.
In a statement issued by his office, Abbas said he is willing to cooperate with further testing, provided Arafat’s family agrees.
“The Palestinian Authority was and remains fully prepared to cooperate and to provide all the facilities needed to reveal the real causes that led to the death of the late president,” the statement said. “There are no religious or political reasons that preclude research on this issue, including an examination of the remains of the late president by a reliable national medical body, upon request and approval by his family.”
The top Muslim cleric in the Palestinian territories, Mufti Mohammed Hussein, said there would be no objections on religious grounds to an autopsy.
With Mrs. Arafat and religious authorities in agreement, it was unclear what other steps were needed for the body to be exhumed from his grave in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
At the time of his death, Arafat was confined by Israel in the Ramallah government compound. The United States and Israel viewed Arafat as largely responsible for the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising.
In a radio interview, Dov Weisglass, the chief of staff of Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, insisted Israeli officials never considered killing Arafat and, in fact, Sharon was opposed to the idea because “he didn’t think his physical extermination would help. On the contrary.”
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor was dismissive of the latest developments, saying “the circumstances of Arafat’s death are not a mystery … He was treated in France, in a French hospital by French doctors and they have all the medical information.”