Arafat's widow files lawsuit to press for probe into his death
PARIS -- The widow of Yasser Arafat filed a lawsuit in France on Tuesday seeking an investigation into the Palestinian leader’s death eight years ago and the possibility that he was poisoned by an unknown person or persons labeled "X."
Arafat died in a Paris hospital at the age of 75 after allegedly suffering a massive stroke, but his demise has long been subject to rumors of foul play. His wife, Suha Arafat, and daughter, Zawra, suspect he may have died of radioactive poisoning from highly toxic polonium 210.
Allegations that the Nobel Peace Prize winner may have been murdered were resurrected in early July after Al Jazeera television broadcast an investigative report in which Swiss experts said they had found “surprisingly” high levels of polonium 210 on items of Arafat's clothing and toothbrush he had with him at the French hospital.
Scientists at the Institute for Radiation Physics added to the mystery by reporting that the results, taken from testing done in March and April, were “inconclusive” because the symptoms described in the Palestinian president's medical reports were not consistent with radioactive poisoning. They suggested further tests on his bones were necessary.
“Exhuming Yasser Arafat will give us a sample that should have a very great concentration of polonium if he was poisoned,” Francois Bochud, director of the institute in Lausanne, Switzerland, told Al Jazeera.
The Palestinian Authority has already agreed to Suha Arafat's request to exhume late husband's body from the limestone mausoleum in the West Bank city of Ramallah where he was buried in 2004.
A French judge must now decide whether to accept the lawsuit and order a murder investigation.
Polonium 210 occurs naturally in very low concentrations in the Earth's crust but is otherwise rarely found outside military and scientific installations, notably nuclear reactors where it is produced artificially. It decays by half every 138 days, so the Swiss scientists say an exhumation of Arafat's remains needs to be carried out quickly.
Lethal but difficult to detect, polonium 210 was used to kill Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy who became a vociferous critic of Russian leader Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin. Litvinenko, who had fled to London, died in 2006 after drinking tea laced with polonium 210.
Arafat, who led the Palestinians for nearly four decades, died in November 2004 at the Percy military hospital in Paris where he had been flown from Ramallah. He fell into a coma and died 13 days later. French doctors declared he had suffered a major stroke and said he was suffering from a blood condition.
At the time Palestinian officials accused Israel of poisoning him. An investigation in 2005 carried out by Palestinian officials proved inconclusive, but ruled out cancer, poisoning or AIDS. Israel has always denied any involvement in Arafat's death and has pointed the finger at squabbling Palestinian factions.
Pierre-Olivier Sur, the lawyer for his widow and 17-year-old daughter, who are both French citizens, said they were not directing their accusation of murder at any person or country in particular. He said the two women had launched the lawsuit to “establish the truth in memory of their husband and father.”
“This complaint of assassination is directed against X,” Sur said. “Suha Arafat does not accuse anyone: neither a state, nor a group, nor an individual.” A lawsuit “against X” or unknown persons is a French legal tactic intended to lead to the widest possible investigation of all those who might be connected to the death.
“I want the world to know the truth about the assassination of Yasser Arafat,” Suha Arafat, who divides her time between France and Malta, told Al Jazeera.
She has frequently pointed out that both Israel and the United States regarded her husband as an obstacle to peace in the region. Claims of foul play in Arafat's death, and suggestions that Palestinians were involved in it, have been a feature of infighting between various Palestinian factions.
On Tuesday, some Palestinian officials expressed support for the lawsuit.
“Finding the truth is the right of every Palestinian,” said Palestinian Authority Justice Minister Ali Muhanna. “We are interested in any investigation that would reveal the truth about the martyrdom of Yasser Arafat and whether a crime was committed.”
The lawsuit comes at a time of renewed tensions within Arafat's Fatah movement, now headed by his successor, President Mahmoud Abbas. There is also continued tension between Fatah and Hamas, the Islamist organization that controls the Gaza Strip.
Photo: Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 2002. Credit: Muhammed Muheisen / Associated Press