France opens Arafat murder inquiry
Move follows allegations arising from Al Jazeera probe that deceased Palestinian leader may have been poisoned in 2004.
A French court has opened a murder inquiry into the 2004 death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, prosecutors said, following claims by his wife that he may have been poisoned.
French officials on Tuesday said prosecutors had agreed to begin an inquiry, but they have yet to appoint an investigating judge.
The announcement comes after Suha Arafat last month asked a court in the western Paris suburb of Nanterre to launch a murder probe following a nine-month investigation by Al Jazeera that found that the Palestinian leaders’ final belongings contained elevated levels of polonium, a rare, highly radioactive element.
Scientists at the Institut de Radiophysique in Lausanne, Switzerland, who studied Arafat’s personal items at Al Jazeera’s request, said that Arafat’s clothes and toothbrush showed elevated levels of polonium-210, and that his remains could offer more conclusive evidence that he was poisoned.
That same radioactive substance was found to have killed former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.
Arafat died in a Paris military hospital in November 2004, a month after being airlifted – when his health collapsed – from his battered headquarters in Ramallah, where he had been effectively confined by Israel for more than two and a half years.
Allegations of foul play have long surrounded Arafat’s demise after French doctors who treated him in his final days said they could not establish the cause of death.
An investigating magistrate, yet to be named, will lead the French probe into possible premeditated murder, a legal source said.
A lawyer for Suha Arafat told Europe 1 radio that the French court was correct in recognising its jurisdiction to investigate the case, since Arafat died in France.
“The tests done in Switzerland showed that Mr Arafat, in all likelihood, died through poisoning,” lawyer Marc Bonnant said. “This hypothesis must be proved, and if that’s the case, then it’s premeditated murder.”
Suha Arafat has said her suspicions were raised when the hospital where her husband was treated acknowledged that they had destroyed his blood and urine samples.
The Palestinian Authority plans to exhume Arafat’s body from a limestone mausoleum in Ramallah for an autopsy and Tunisia has called for a ministerial meeting of the Arab League to discuss his death.
Al Jazeera’s Clayton Swisher, who was behind the investigation into the death of Arafat, said allegations of foul play have long surrounded the case.
“For the past eight years, politics has often influenced the mystery of Yasser Arafat’s death. Frankly I am quite surprised that politics has been kept out of the court room.
“I am happy to find that the French found convincing the scientific work done by the Swiss laboratory, the Lausanne Institute for Legal Medicine, one of Europe’s leading forensic pathology institutes. Their Institute for Radiophysics really did a thorough job on this.
“To learn that a French judge was also compelled by their discovery of polonium in Yasser Arafat’s last personal effects is a testament to the seriousness of this case,” Swisher said.
Yigal Palmor, spokesperson for Israel’s foreign ministry said: “This does not pertain to us. The complaint lodged by Suha Arafat with the French police does not address Israel or anyone in particular.
“If the French justice system has decided to open an investigation, we hope that it will shed light on this matter.”