Home   Bookmark and Share

President Arafat Murdered
Swiss study: Polonium found in Arafat’s bones

Scientists find at least 18 times the normal levels of radioactive element in late Palestinian leader’s remains.

By David Poort and Ken Silverstein



November 06, 2013 "Information Clearing House - "Al-Jazeera" --    Paris, France - Swiss scientists who conducted tests on samples taken from Yasser Arafat’s body have found at least 18 times the normal levels of radioactive polonium in his remains. The scientists said that they were confident up to an 83 percent level that the late Palestinian leader was poisoned with it, which they said “moderately supports” polonium as the cause of his death.

A 108-page report by the University Centre of Legal Medicine in Lausanne, which was obtained exclusively by Al Jazeera, found unnaturally high levels of polonium in Arafat’s ribs and pelvis, and in soil stained with his decaying organs.

The Swiss scientists, along with French and Russian teams, obtained the samples last November after his body was exhumed from a mausoleum in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.

Dave Barclay, a renowned UK forensic scientist and retired detective, told Al Jazeera that with these results he was wholly convinced that Arafat was murdered.

“Yasser Arafat died of polonium poisoning,” he said. “We found the smoking gun that caused his death. What we don’t know is who’s holding the gun at the time.”

“The level of polonium in Yasser Arafat’s rib…is about 900 milibecquerels,” Barclay said. “That is either 18 or 36 times the average, depending on the literature.”

Suha Arafat, the late Palestinian leader’s widow, received a copy of the report in Paris on Tuesday. “When they came with the results, I’m mourning Yasser again,” she said. “It’s like you just told me he died.”

The Swiss report only examined the question of what killed Arafat. It did not address the question of whether he was deliberately poisoned or how.

By October of 2004, towards the end of the second intifada, Arafat had been holed up for more than two years in his Ramallah presidential compound, which Israeli troops had surrounded and partly razed. He was elderly and frail but his medical reports show he “was in good overall health and did not have any particular risk factors,” the Swiss report states.

On the evening of October 12, Arafat suddenly fell ill after eating a meal. Based on his symptoms - nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain - his personal doctor initially diagnosed flu.

But Arafat’s heath deteriorated swiftly and Egyptian and Tunisian doctors flown in to see him could not pinpoint the source of his sickness.

On October 29, a wan and weak Arafat was carried in a wheelchair from his headquarters. He waved and blew kisses to the crowd outside and flew to Jordan by helicopter. From there a French government plane carried him to Paris for emergency treatment at Percy military hospital.

French doctors were unable to diagnose or halt Arafat’s decline and he soon lapsed into a coma. On November 11, Arafat, who symbolised the fight for Palestinian statehood, died at the age of 75.

Doctors at Percy hospital did not conduct an autopsy, announce the cause of death or release his medical records, which heightened speculation about the cause of his rapid demise. Many Palestinian officials close to Arafat believed he had been poisoned. In the West, rumours circulated that he had died of Aids. Some doctors suggested leukaemia or a food-borne illness had killed Arafat; others proposed that he had simply succumbed to old age.

By 2011, when Al Jazeera began an investigation, Arafat’s death was a cold case. During the investigation, Suha Arafat gave the network access to her late husband’s full medical records and a bag of his belongings, including clothing he wore during his final days. Tests conducted by the Swiss scientists who issued the new report found elevated levels of polonium-210, one of the element’s isotopes, in blood, sweat and urine stains on Arafat’s clothes.

In July 2012, Al Jazeera broadcast the results of its investigation in What Killed Arafat? The documentary triggered a French murder investigation and led to the exhumation of Arafat’s remains. Sixty samples of his body tissue were taken and twenty each distributed to the Swiss team, a French team of judges and forensic experts assigned to the murder investigation, and a Russian group invited at the request of the Palestinian Authority.

The Russians are expected to disclose their results soon. The French are not expected to release their results before the murder investigation concludes.

Saad Djebbar, Suha Arafat’s lawyer, said the Swiss report was a “significant piece of the jigsaw puzzle” that could help the French murder inquiry.

A rare but lethal poison

Polonium is a soft, silvery-grey metal found in uranium ore. The isotope polonium-210 emits highly radioactive alpha particles, but they do not travel more than a few centimetres in air and are "stopped by a sheet of paper or by the dead layer of outer skin on our bodies,” says the International Atomic Energy Agency.

For that reason polonium-210 is not a risk to human health as long as it remains outside the body. But a dose of 0.1 of a microgramme - the size of a speck of dust weighing less than a millionth of a snowflake - would be fatal if it were ingested in food or liquids or inhaled in contaminated air.

Only a handful of people are reported to have died from polonium poisoning. The most famous case involves Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer turned dissident who received political asylum from the British government and lived in London.

Litvinenko died in November 2006, three weeks after meeting several Russians, including a one-time KGB officer, at London's Millennium Hotel. A British public prosecutor alleges that the Russians were acting at the behest of their government and poisoned Litvinenko by lacing his tea with polonium-210.

Polonium-210 is “one of the most obscure, most bizarre, and yet most merciless of poisons,” writes Alan Cowell in The Terminal Spy, a book about the Litvinenko case.

It was used as a trigger for early nuclear weapons and subsequently as a power source for satellites and spacecraft. However, polonium-210 is extremely rare and would be difficult to obtain without the help of a government or access to a nuclear reactor. It also requires considerable scientific know-how to handle in a safe manner.

Polonium-210 is manufactured by bombarding bismuth-209 with neutrons in a nuclear reactor. Only about 100 grammes are produced each year, almost all in Russia.

In terms of motive, the chief suspects would be Arafat’s Palestinian rivals or the Israeli government, his sworn enemy. Ariel Sharon, the prime minister in 2004, viewed Arafat as a “terrorist” and called his death "a turning point in Middle Eastern history”. A year earlier, then-Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said killing Arafat ''is definitely one of the options”.

However, Israel has always vehemently denied it had anything to do with Arafat’s sickness or death and to date no evidence has emerged that implicates it.

While Barclay expressed confidence in the cause of death, he said it would be a difficult case to solve.

“The main problem is the timeframe,” he said. “If this was a murder that happened yesterday you’d have witnesses and cell phone records, emails, bank transfers. In a nine-year-old case that type of information will be hard to obtain.”

“We can’t point a finger at anyone,” Suha Arafat said. “The French are conducting a serious investigation. It takes time.”

Read - Swiss forensic report on Arafat's death

Myth buster: Killing Arafat


Al Jazeera's Investigations Unit answers frequently asked questions about the investigation into the killing of Arafat.

Why does this all come out now, nine years after Arafat’s death?

The idea to investigate Arafat’s death came during a meeting between Al Jazeera’s Clayton Swisher and Suha Arafat in November 2011. Swisher met Arafat’s widow and surviving daughter in Malta, originally with the intent of convincing them to allow access to Arafat’s unpublished personal diaries. Upon learning that all Arafat’s medical files were with his widow, Swisher shifted his focus.

By late January 2012, Swisher gained possession of Arafat’s French and Palestinian medical files and, crucially, a green duffel bag containing Yasser Arafat’s final possessions. Suha Arafat had also provided written permission to ask questions of doctors who treated Arafat, as well as to assign his medical files and last personal effects to some of the best forensic experts in the world.

On February 3, 2012, Arafat’s medical file and the green duffel bag were turned over to the Lausanne University Center for Legal Medicine, which initiated a rigorous re-examination of the case beginning with the medical file. They ordered toxicology tests on hair samples discovered within the bag, later confirmed to be Arafat’s through DNA testing. When conventional poisons were not discovered, the Swiss lab began to look for more exotic ones, including polonium-210, through their affiliate Institute for Radiation Physics.

In March 2012 the IRA discovered a urine stain from Arafat’s underwear that was “strongly contaminated” with polonium-210 as well as abnormal polonium levels from other areas visibly stained with blood (from a hospital cap taken from Arafat’s body) and sweat stains from the collar of his athletic jumper.

After performing a second series of measurements the scientists discovered that a majority of the high levels of polonium from the stains were unsupported by the presence of radioactive lead-210, which meant they had originated in a nuclear reactor. This hypothesis was put forward in Al Jazeera’s July 3, 2012 broadcast of What Killed Arafat? which followed the trajectory of Swisher’s entire investigation.

At the conclusion of the film, widow Suha Arafat began a campaign for her late husband’s body to be exhumed for testing. A French murder inquiry was also opened which paved the way for a court to receive any further evidence from the teams studying samples of Arafat’s corpse.

The results have just been released.

Where was the gym bag containing Arafat’s belongings kept until it was given to Al Jazeera?

Suha Arafat stated that the bag was kept in safely custody for the past eight years, primarily with her lawyer and in a safe room on the fourth floor of a building in Paris. She did not elaborate on the precise address. She stated that it was kept there until it was retrieved in late January 2012 for Clayton Swisher to deliver to the Swiss laboratory.

Could the elevated levels of polonium in Arafat’s body have come from excessive smoking?

No. Deborah Blum, a science writer with Wired, put forward this scientifically unfounded hypothesis following the broadcast of What Killed Arafat?

Writing in the Lancet medical journal in October, the Swiss scientists said: “From our own routine measurements, a heavy smoker excretes typically 0.015 mBq/ml of urine… this would only account for a negligible proportion of the Po210 [polonium-210] that were measured on Mr Arafat’s belongings.”

The levels of polonium measured in Arafat’s urine were all elevated and in one case reached 180 milibecquerels (mBq).

Also, according to Arafat’s medical records, he was a non-smoker and tests on Arafat in 2004 for cotinine, a substance found in cigarettes, were negative.

A persistent rumour claimed that Arafat was infected with HIV. Where does the rumour originate?

Rumours that Arafat had HIV are linked to an interview on Al Jazeera with Dr Ashraf Al Kurdi, a former Jordanian health ministry official and one-time personal doctor to Arafat in a broadcast made on August 4, 2007.

In it, Dr Kurdi claimed to have received an email from French medical doctors who treated Arafat, claiming to have discovered “the AIDS microbe” in Arafat’s blood.

Dr Kurdi died and the email has never been seen.

More to the point, medical records and blood tests taken by both Arab and French doctors confirm that Arafat did not have HIV or AIDS.

Tunisian doctors who visited Arafat in Ramallah shortly before his death did two HIV tests, both of which were negative.

French medical records of Yasser Arafat, released by Al Jazeera, also confirm Arafat did not have AIDS or HIV.

Dr Toufik Shabba, one of the Tunisian doctors involved, told Al Jazeera in What Killed Arafat?: “HIV is my specialty. There is absolutely no way there is HIV.”

The rumour that Arafat had AIDS also fed another conspiracy theory, that Yasser Arafat was a closet homosexual. Indeed, numerous interviews with those closest to him confirmed this was false.

The AIDS/homosexual allegations originated from a former Romanian intelligence officer linked to right-wing, neoconservative groups.

Why wasn’t there an autopsy done on Arafat’s body after his death in 2004?

A widely held but mistaken belief is that Suha Arafat refused the offer of an autopsy.

But French doctors never offered an autopsy and Suha Arafat did not request one.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) also met at the time chose not to order the procedure.

In Killing Arafat, senior PA leader Nabil Shaath explained that after Arafat’s death, “the question really then was how to continue, how to move on, and that is really the question that needed to be tackled at the time.

“We felt that going into an autopsy would really make it very difficult for the people and very difficult for the memory of Arafat and would turn what is a martyrdom case into a police criminal case.

“Really, people were not really ready, at least in our mind, for turning this into a criminal police case,” Shaath told Al Jazeera.

Did Al Jazeera pay for any evidence in the investigation?


Why are the Swiss, French and the Russians involved in the investigation?

Al Jazeera chose to work with the Swiss scientists from Lausanne University in the What Killed Arafat? documentary because they were one of the world’s leading authorities on forensic pathology in general, with access to their own toxicology and radiological labs.

After their results suggested polonium was used as a poison, they became the lead scientists on the case, urging exhumation and testing of body tissue to provide more data.

A French team is involved because France opened a murder inquiry in August 2012, after Suha Arafat submitted a legal case at the court of Nanterre.

Three French magistrates are investigating the death of Yasser Arafat. They attended Arafat’s exhumation in November, bringing a scientific and pathology team with them.

Just weeks before Arafat’s scheduled exhumation, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas announced that a Russian team would also participate in the testing. This followed an October 2012 meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Amman Jordan. President Abbas has especially close relations with the Russians, going back to his studies in Moscow in the 1970’s.

Who was spying on Al Jazeera’s producers in Ramallah and why?

The security agents following the Al Jazeera team in Ramallah were Palestinian Authority general security officers reporting to General Majed Al Faraj.

When Al Jazeera confirmed this activity was ordered by his office, Faraj sent an apology to Al Jazeera via an intermediary, along with a pledge that it would not continue.

Al Jazeera’s team suspected they were being followed in early November 2012 and confirmed it with video evidence on November 13, shortly before the exhumation.

They confirmed this by taking bogus journeys around Ramallah, which exposed their pursuers.

They later caught one of the surveillance agents rummaging through the baggage and equipment of an Al Jazeera cameraman’s room at the Movenpick Hotel in Ramallah.

At that moment in time, Al Jazeera was tracking down and interviewing aides to Yasser Arafat who had been close to him when he first fell ill.

It appears the Palestinian Authority had put the Al Jazeera team under surveillance in order to gain insider knowledge of their investigation.


What's your response? -  Scroll down to add / read comments 

Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for our FREE Daily Email Newsletter

For Email Marketing you can trust

  Support Information Clearing House

Monthly Subscription To Information Clearing House











 Please read our  Comment Policy before posting -

We ask readers to play a proactive role and click the "Report link [at the base of each comment] when in your opinion, comments cross the line and become purely offensive, racist or disrespectful to others.





In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. Information Clearing House has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is Information ClearingHouse endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)

Privacy Statement