Myth buster: Killing Arafat

Al Jazeera’s Investigations Unit answers frequently asked questions about the investigation into the

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widow and surviving daughter in Malta, originally with the intent of convincing them to allow access to Arafat’s unpublished personal diaries.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.

Source: Al Jazeera