PARIS — Nearly eight years after the death of Yasser Arafat, French prosecutors, spurred by the Palestinian leader's family, opened an inquiry Tuesday on the possibility that he was killed by poisoning.
The probe was announced after recent reports that a Swiss laboratory found traces of the radioactive element polonium on Arafat’s underwear and toothbrush, leading Arafat’s widow, Suha Arafat, to file an official complaint in July for an investigation.
“My daughter, Zahwa, who is 17 years old, wants to know why her father died,” Suha Arafat told the French daily Le Figaro on July 31. A recent report by Al Jazeera revealing high levels of polonium on Arafat’s clothing “pushed me to find out all the truth about the death of my husband,” she added.
Arafat died at age 75 on Nov. 11, 2004, in a military hospital in the Paris region after reportedly suffering a massive stroke, but rumors of foul play spread at the time.
Suha Arafat said that after the Al Jazeera report, she asked to have access to Arafat’s medical death records and also blood and urine samples that were taken, in order to have new tests performed. However, the French hospital told her the samples were destroyed four years ago.
“That made me wonder. Why did they destroy part of his medical file, when official inquiries into the death of a family member can be filed until 10 years after their death?” she asked in the same interview with Le Figaro. “I want to know whether we can just destroy blood and urine samples like that. That’s why I asked that his medical report be declassified in the complaint.”
Polonium was used in the 2006 killing of Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, and is a highly toxic substance.
“We welcome this decision,” said Palestinian official Saeb Erakat, speaking to AFP.
“President Mahmoud Abbas has officially asked French President Francois Hollande to help us to investigate the circumstances of the martyrdom of late president Arafat,” and the Palestinian Authority hopes “a serious investigation to reveal the whole truth, in addition to a international investigation to identify all the parties involved,” he added.
Arafat’s remains in the West Bank town of Ramallah will be exhumed and sent for further tests to the same laboratory in Lausanne, Switzerland, that found traces of polonium on his belongings.
A French judge has not yet been named to lead the investigation, which is being conducted by prosecutors in the town of Nanterre, west of Paris.
-- Devorah Lauter
Photo: Yasser Arafat, right, assisted by his wife Suha, leaves his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah in October 2004, shortly before his death. Credit: AFP