French prosecutors open inquiry into Arafat's death

5 min

French prosecutors have opened an inquiry into the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat following recent claims he was poisoned with radioactive polonium. The Palestinian leader died in a French military hospital in 2004.


France has opened an official murder inquiry into the death of former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat, judicial sources told AFP on Tuesday.

Arafat died on November 11, 2004, in a French military hospital where he was being treated for an unnamed illness. Doctors have never been able to give a concrete explanation for his death.

The murder inquiry into Yasser Arafat’s death will be no easy investigation for French authorities. Investigators must overcome various obstacles in the quest to establish the truth about a death that took place almost eight years ago.

Samples destroyed: In 2008, four years after Arafat’s death, hospital officials reportedly destroyed over a litre of urine and blood samples taken from the Palestinian leader.

Tracking down doctors: More than 30 medical professionals examined Arafat in the Paris hospital, including toxicologists. They will now have to be found and questioned. Doctors who treated Arafat in Ramallah before he came to Paris will also have to be quizzed.

Offices bulldozed: Arafat’s former offices in the Palestinian Territories may have held some vital clues, but they have been raised to the ground and turned into a car park

Disappearing poison: French authorities will have to act fast as polonium decays by half every 138 days, meaning tests on his body will have to take place as soon as possible.

The murder probe comes a month after Arafat’s family, including his widow Suha, launched legal action in France to investigate claims his death was caused by poisoning.

Palestinian officials have long been suspicious of Israeli involvement in Arafat’s death, despite a 2005 Palestinian investigation ruling out the possibility that he was poisoned or that he died of cancer or AIDS.

The allegations of poisoning were resurrected earlier this year by Al Jazeera who carried out a nine-month investigation into his death. The Dubai-based broadcaster’s probe concluded that Arafat was in good health until he suddenly fell ill in October 2004.

'Poisoning hypothesis must be examined'

Last month Al Jazeera revealed that tests carried out in a Swiss laboratory showed possessions belonging to the former leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) contained unusually high levels of polonium.

Polonium is a highly toxic substance and was used in the high-profile killing of Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.

Representatives of the family welcomed the launch of the inquiry. “This is the decision we were expecting,” lawyer Marc Bonnant told Europe1 radio.

"The tests done in Switzerland showed that Arafat, in all likelihood, died through poisoning. This hypothesis must be examined,” Bonnant said.

Suha Arafat has agreed for her husband’s remains to be exhumed from his mausoleum in the West Bank town of Ramallah so they can be subjected to further tests for traces of polonium.

In the coming weeks one or several judges will be named to lead the French investigation, which was opened in the town of Nanterre, just outside Paris.

Israel has repeatedly denied any allegations it was involved in the death of the former Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Tuesday’s announcement was welcomed by the Palestinian Authority, which is demanding to know “the full truth on Arafat’s death”.

"We hope the French investigation will satisfy our desire for truth,” Saeb Erakat of the Palestinian Authority told AFP. Erakat also called for “an international investigation to identify all the parties involved in Arafat's martyrdom.”

Caution over poisoning theory

Despite the growing air of suspicion surrounding Arafat’s death, hospital documents detailing Arafat’s treatment that were published by Slate’s French website on Tuesday appear to pour cold water on the theory he was poisoned by polonium.

The report revealed Arafat first fell ill on October 12, 2004 suffering from “nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain”. He was admitted to hospital 17 days later before falling into a coma on November 3. He was pronounced dead eight days later.

A specialist in medical toxicology who wished to remain anonymous told FRANCE 24 that the findings in the hospital report were not consistent with polonium poisoning.

“Most poisonings would have had a faster effect on the target and the deterioration would not have stretched out over several weeks,” he said.

Paris-based doctor Marcel-Francis Kahn told Slate that Arafat’s death could have been caused by mushroom poisoning.

But Dr Philippe Hantson, a toxicologist at the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium, dismissed this idea.

“If you really want to stick to the theory he was poisoned then you should really be looking at metal poisoning, possibly by arsenic or lead, which take effect over a longer period,” Hantson told FRANCE 24 after studying the hospital’s report.

Hantson conceded however that the traces of poisonous metals should have been easily detectable in any blood tests carried out on the patient.

With the opening of a murder inquiry on Tuesday the onus of finding a conclusive cause of death will now fall on French prosecutors.

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