Israel news photo: Flash 90
Swiss laboratory research released Tuesday suggests Yassir Arafat was poisoned with polonium in 2004.
Francois Bochud, head of the Institute of Radiation Physics at the University of Lausanne, told Al-Jazeera, "The conclusion was that we did find some significant polonium that was present in these samples."
Arafat died on November 11, 2004, following several weeks of treatment for deteriorating health. He had been airlifted to France from his besieged headquarters in Ramallah.
At the time of his death at the age of 75, Palestinian Authority officials charged he had been poisoned by longtime foe Israel, but an inconclusive PA investigation in 2005 ruled out cancer, AIDS or poisoning.
However, French officials are restricted by privacy laws and have refused to reveal the precise cause of death or the nature of his condition, fuelling a host of rumours and theories as to the cause of his illness.
To confirm the theory that he was poisoned by polonium it would be necessary to exhume and analyse Arafat's remains, Bochud said.
"If (Suha Arafat) really wants to know what happened to her husband (we need) to find a sample - I mean, an exhumation... should provide us with a sample that should have a very high quantity of polonium if he was poisoned," he said.
However, Bochud said an analysis of Arafat's belongings indicated he was poisoned.
“I can confirm to you that we measured an unexplained, elevated amount of unsupported polonium-210 in the belongings of Mr. Arafat that contained stains of biological fluids,” said Bochud said.
The study of Arafat's medical file and belongings was carried out at the University Hospital Centre in Lausanne, Switzerland, which is considered one of the best forensic pathology labs in the world.
Polonium is a highly radioactive element used, among other things, to power spacecraft.
Animal studies have found similar symptoms, which lingered for weeks - depending on the dosage – until the subject died. “The primary radiation target… is the gastrointestinal tract,” said an American study conducted in 1991, “activating the ‘vomiting centre’ in the brainstem.”
The lab’s results were reported in millibecquerels (mBq), a scientific unit used to measure radioactivity.
Polonium-210, the isotope found on Arafat's belongings, has a half-life of 138 days, meaning that half of the substance decays roughly every four-and-a-half months, when naturally occuring polonium only registers a few millibecquerels, usually fewer than 10, at a time.
But Arafat’s personal effects, particularly those with bodily fluids on them, registered much higher levels of the element. His toothbrushes had polonium levels of 54mBq; the urine stain on his underwear, 180mBq.
Further tests, conducted over a three-month period from March until June, concluded that most of that polonium – between 60 and 80 per cent, depending on the sample – was “unsupported,” meaning that it did not come from natural sources.
However, even though the tests indicate Arafat was in all likelihood poisoned, they do nothing to suggest who may have been behind it.