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Radiation specialists maintain Arafat death analysis

Experts are still in disagreement about the death of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, commemorated by Palestinians at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City on November 11, 2013 swissinfo.ch

Swiss experts have defended their conclusions that Yasser Arafat was possibly poisoned with polonium, contradicting analysis by French scientists that suggests other causes could explain the Palestinian leader’s death.

This content was published on December 5, 2013 - 14:22
swissinfo.ch and agencies

The Lausanne researchers reaffirmed that their results “reasonably” support the hypothesis of poisoning. Patrice Mangin, director of the city’s University Centre of Legal Medicine, told Swiss public broadcaster RTS that the French conclusion that a generalised infection or natural causes could explain Arafat’s death was “surprising”.

On Tuesday, the Palestinian leader’s wife Suha Arafat presented at a news conference in Paris the French report’s conclusions.  She said that she was disappointed by the result and that she remained convinced that her husband’s death was not natural.

The French scientists suggested that the above-average levels of the poison polonium that were found in Arafat’s grave could be explained by a natural source of radon, which can decay into polonium. The French report has not been published.

François Bochud, director of the University of Lausanne’s Institute for Radiation Physics, which analysed the Swiss samples, said that if radon as a source was sufficient, one would have had to find consistent levels throughout the grave.

The Swiss researchers, however, observed polonium values in the samples just below the corpse that were 17 times higher than those taken further away. Bochud pointed out that the French team had no radiation expert present when the samples were taken.

The Swiss researchers had said in November they had found evidence that Arafat may have been poisoned with polonium after traces were found in soil and bone samples taken from his grave as well as clothing, but they cannot be absolutely sure. Their report is available online.

Infection ruled out

Mangin said that when the Palestinian leader was hospitalised in Paris no cause of death was established by the specialists and that the infection hypothesis was the most easily ruled out.

He said that he considered the advanced diagnosis in the French report as “debatable” and that he believes that “we will remain in doubt” about Arafat’s death.

Arafat died aged 75 under mysterious circumstances at a French military hospital in 2004.

In July last year, the Swiss lab, mandated by the Al Jazeera news network, announced it had found “surprisingly high” levels of polonium in Arafat’s belongings, which were given to his widow by the military hospital in Paris where he died.


Around 60 samples were then taken from the remains of the Palestinian leader and his gravesite after he was exhumed in Ramallah in November last year to investigate the poisoning hypothesis.

The samples were divided between Swiss, Russian and French investigators carrying out probes at the request of Arafat’s wife. The Russian results have yet to be released.

The tests were conducted eight years after Arafat's death, so there may have been problems with chemical degradation, while there were question marks about the chain of custody for some samples or items analysed.

The researchers also had to perform their analyses on very small specimens – such as a single hair shaft or traces of blood and urine.

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