Samples taken from Yasser Arafat’s remains to see if he was poisoned

November 27, 2012

Tissue samples were taken Tuesday from the remains of Yasser Arafat, the longtime Palestinian leader who died in 2004, as part of an inquiry into whether he might have been poisoned, Palestinian officials said.

The probe was ordered after an investigative report on the Arabic satellite channel al-Jazeera in July presented what it said was evidence of possible poisoning, reviving suspicions surrounding Arafat’s death.

The report prompted Arafat’s widow, Suha Arafat, to call for an exhumation from his tomb, in the West Bank city of Ramallah. It was authorized by Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the West Bank. 

Palestinian officials have long accused Israel of poisoning Arafat, who personified the Palestinian cause and over decades shifted from terrorist tactics to negotiating a peace deal. Israeli officials emphatically deny the claims.

Samples from Arafat’s body were taken at dawn at his tomb in the presidential compound and given to French, Swiss and Russian experts, who will examine them in their home countries, officials said. Results are not expected for several months.

“The process and the work of the experts began early in the morning, and as far as I know, everything went well, and they were able to collect what was needed,” said Nour Odeh, a spokeswoman for the Palestinian Authority.

The sensitivity of the task of unearthing remains of a leader revered as a national icon was evident in the arrangements surrounding the exhumation. The area was hidden behind blue tarpaulins, and no news media were allowed to document the proceedings, only wreath-layings by Palestinian officials after the tomb was resealed.

Tawfik Tirawi, the head of the Palestinian committee investigating Arafat’s death, assured viewers at a televised news conference that “only Palestinian hands” had touched the late leader’s body.

Abdallah Bashir, head of the medical team for the Palestinian committee, told reporters that 20 samples had been collected. He said the foreign experts have been asked to determine whether any type of poison may have caused Arafat’s death.

Arafat died in November 2004 at 75 in a French military hospital that he was flown to from Ramallah about two weeks earlier, after his health had deteriorated. He had been confined to his Ramallah compound by Israeli authorities for more than two years during the second Palestinian uprising.

Medical records showed that he died from a stroke caused by a bleeding disorder stemming from an underlying infection that was never identified.

The French hospital found no traces of poison. But in its televised report, al-Jazeera said it had turned over some of Arafat’s personal effects — including clothing he had worn before his death, his toothbrush and his trademark black-checked head scarf — to the University of Lausanne’s Institute of Radiation Physics in Switzerland, which tested them and said it found unusually high levels of the very toxic radioactive isotope polonium-210. The items, stored for years, were given to the television channel by Arafat’s widow.   

Polonium-210 was identified as the substance that killed Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent who became a critic of the Russian government. Litvinenko died in 2006 after being poisoned in London.

After a formal complaint by Suha Arafat, French authorities in August opened a murder inquiry into Yasser Arafat’s death.

The director of the Swiss institute told al-Jazeera that Arafat’s remains would have to be examined to corroborate any suspicions of poisoning. But polonium-210 decomposes rapidly, and it was unclear whether the samples taken on Tuesday, years after his death, would provide any conclusive evidence.

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