French prosecutors have opened a murder enquiry into Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s 2004 death near Paris following claims he may have died of polonium poisoning, sources told AFP Tuesday.
The probe comes after Arafat’s family launched legal action in France last month following reports the veteran Palestinian leader may have died from radioactive polonium.
Arafat’s widow Suha and his daughter Zawra lodged a murder complaint on July 31 in the Paris suburb of Nanterre. Arafat died at age 75 at a military hospital near Paris in 2004.
“A judicial murder enquiry has been opened, as expected following the complaint from Mrs. Arafat,” a source close to the matter told AFP.
Confirming the enquiry, Pierre-Olivier Sur, a lawyer for Arafat’s widow and daughter, said they were “happy” at the decision but would not comment further “so as to leave the judges to lead all investigations necessary to find the truth….”
The Palestinian Authority also welcomed the move, with senior Palestinian official Saeb Erakat expressing hope that “we will reach the full truth on Arafat’s death and who stands behind it.”
“We hope the French investigation will satisfy our desire for truth, and that there will be a serious investigation to reveal the whole truth, in addition to an international investigation to identify all the parties involved in Arafat’s martyrdom,” he told AFP in Ramallah.
Allegations that the Nobel Peace laureate was poisoned were resurrected last month after Al-Jazeera news channel broadcast an investigation in which experts said they found high levels of polonium on his personal effects.
Polonium is a highly toxic substance which is rarely found outside military and scientific circles, and was used to kill former Russian spy turned Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko, who died in 2006 shortly after drinking tea laced with the poison.
Suha Arafat has said she backs exhuming her late husband’s remains from his mausoleum in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
A Swiss radiology lab at the Lausanne University Hospital Centre said on Friday it has received Suha Arafat’s go-ahead to test his remains for poisoning by polonium.
French news website Slate.fr on Tuesday published a copy of the medical report into Arafat’s death and said his symptoms were not consistent with polonium poisoning.
Arafat was sent to the Percy military hospital in Clamart outside Paris after suffering from nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, acute diarrhea and an abnormally low amount of platelets in the blood.
Doctors at the hospital conducted a wide range of tests but were unable to determine the exact cause of his illness.
A few days after his arrival in France, Arafat lapsed into a coma and he died on November 11, 2004. No autopsy was conducted.
“The hypothesis of polonium does not stand up to scrutiny,” Marcel Francis-Kahn, the former chief of rheumatology at Paris’s Bichat hospital, told Slate.fr.
“All experts know that poisoning by radioactive material does not lead to the symptoms seen in Arafat,” he said, noting that he also suffered no traditional effects of radiation poisoning such as hair loss and a massive drop in white blood cells.
At the time of Arafat’s death, Palestinian officials alleged he had been poisoned by long-time foe Israel, but an inconclusive Palestinian investigation in 2005 ruled out poisoning, as well as cancer and AIDS.
Israel has consistently denied the allegations, accusing Suha Arafat and Palestinian officials of covering up the real reasons for the death of the former leader, who led the struggle for Palestinian statehood for nearly four decades.
Following the news of a French enquiry, Israel said it “does not feel this investigation is of any concern to it despite all the hare-brained allegations made against us,” foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said.
“I hope this enquiry throws light on every aspect of this affair,” he added.