Inside Story

Arafat: Polonium no more?

As Russian scientists say that the former Palestinian leader died of natural causes, we look at the ongoing controversy.

Last updated: 28 Dec 2013 11:50
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There are more twists and turns in the struggle to find out how Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader, died. A Russian investigation now says it was because of natural causes, not radiation poisoning.

Russia has no interest in hiding the death of Mr Arafat - if it had come from some unnatural causes ... 

Dmitry Babich, a political commentator for the Voice of Russia

Scientists from several countries have tried to determine what killed Arafat and whether polonium played a role. He died in a French military hospital in 2004. Palestinians have long suspected Israel of poisoning him, which Israel denies.

It follows an Al Jazeera investigation that found high levels of polonium in the former Palestinian leader's remains.

His body was exhumed last year and scientists from France, Switzerland and Russia were asked to find out if radiation had played a role in Arafat's sudden illness and death in 2004.

Russia is the last country to release its results. But Palestinian and Swiss officials say Moscow's findings are political.

Vladimir Uiba, the head of Russia's forensics agency, is insistent though.

Why did the Russian scientists, who are the best in the world, why don't they become more transparent ... those numbers mentioned were much below the natural polonium in a normal person .... Looking at the Russian report, this conclusion is a conclusion motivated by politics rather than science. 

 Saad Djebbar, Arafat family lawyer

He told reporters: "The person died a natural death and not from radiation ... We've completed an expert evaluation, and everyone agreed with us. Even the Swiss withdrew statements and agreed, and the French confirmed our conclusions."

That is a claim denied by the Swiss. They revealed their findings in November that confirm Arafat had ingested Polonium, most probably as a result of deliberate poisoning.

Swiss scientists also said the levels of polonium in Arafat's body were at least 18-times higher than normal.

France, the other country to investigate the death, painted a different picture. Their study found traces of polonium in Arafat's body, which they said were from the natural environment. And they concluded Arafat had died of natural causes.

Earlier, a Russian source with access to leaked findings from the Russian scientists' study told Al Jazeera the laboratory personnel received clear instructions from the foreign ministry on how the final report should look.

So, why are there so many different scientific results? Is faulty science fudging the facts or faulty politics?

Inside Story presenter Sami Zeidan discusses with guests: Dmitry Babich, a political commentator for the Voice of Russia; Saad Djebbar, a lawyer representing the Arafat family; and Darcy Christen, a spokesman for the Lausanne-based Institute of Radiation Physics, which conducted the Swiss study.

"The number one rule in science is transparency that means when you have any scientific enterprise you have to publish a report ... I believe that is not the case for the French report, that is still secret and I also believe it's the case for the Russian report which has also not been published. So we do have a problem here that we are trying to compare things which are not really comparable."

Darcy Christen, Institute of Radiation Physics Lausanne


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