PARIS – French scientists looking into the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat have dismissed poisoning by radioactive polonium, his widow announced Tuesday. The results contradict earlier findings by a Swiss lab, and mean it’s still unclear how Arafat died nine years ago.
Teams of scientists from three countries were appointed to determine whether polonium played a role in his death in a French military hospital in 2004. Palestinians have long suspected Israel of poisoning him, which Israel denies.
After a 2012 report that traces of radioactive polonium were found on Arafat’s clothing, Arafat’s widow filed a legal complaint in France seeking an investigation into whether he was murdered.
As part of that investigation, French investigators had Arafat’s remains exhumed and ordered genetic, toxicology, medical, anatomical and radiation tests on them. Suha Arafat and her lawyers were notified Tuesday of the results, less than a month after the Swiss team issued their report.
The French experts found traces of polonium but came to different conclusions than the Swiss about where they came from, finding that it was “of natural environmental origin,” Suha Arafat said.
The French finding “dismisses the hypothesis of poisoning by polonium-210,” she said.
The Swiss scientists said they found elevated traces of polonium-210 and lead, and that the time frame of Arafat’s illness and death was consistent with poisoning from ingesting polonium.
Arafat’s widow and her legal team attributed the difference to the potential role of radioactive radon gas around the burial cloth and body in the tomb. Its presence was detected and measured by both the French and the Swiss. Radon, which is found naturally, transforms into polonium in a naturally occurring process.
Arafat and her lawyers reached the conclusion after consulting private experts to help them understand the French report.
“There is a doubt,” Arafat said. “Is it the poisoned body that contaminated the immediate external environment — the Swiss thesis — or the opposite, is it the external environment, the radioactive radon gas, that explains the presence of polonium-210 in the body — the French thesis?”
Pierre-Olivier Sur, Suha Arafat’s French lawyer, said he will ask the three investigating magistrates handling the case to include the Swiss report in the probe and compare them. He said he would like to see a meeting of the Swiss and French scientists to hash out differences.
“I think the French experts followed a very, very narrow approach,” said another lawyer for Arafat, Saad Djebbar, arguing that the Swiss took more extensive environmental samples than the French scientists.
Arafat died Nov. 11, 2004, a month after falling ill at his West Bank headquarters. At the time, French doctors said he died of a stroke and had a blood-clotting problem, but records were inconclusive about what caused that condition.
Paul Hirschson of Israel’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday the result of the French was as expected.
“We are not surprised and hopefully this farce can now be put to bed,” he told The Associated Press. “We said all along that reports of his poisoning were hogwash and now it’s been confirmed.”
But Suha Arafat said “it’s but the beginning” of her efforts to pinpoint her husband’s cause of death.
She repeatedly said during the news conference, “I accuse no one” and stressed her confidence in the French justice system.
“He wasn’t old. He was in very, very good health,” she said. “There is something funny. This isn’t normal.”
She said that she and her daughter “want something to close the wound in our hearts.”
A Russian report given to Palestinian officials was inconclusive about polonium’s role. But both the Swiss and Russian reports said his death was caused as a result of a toxic substance, according to a medical expert in a Palestinian team of investigators, Dr. Abdullah Bashir. The legal team in Paris suggested that the Russians were not forthcoming about the results of their report.