France opens murder inquiry into death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat

Yasser Arafat
French prosecutors have opened an official murder inquiry into the 2004 death of Palestinian statesman Yasser Arafat, following allegations that he may have been poisoned. The decision, announced Tuesday, comes less than two months after the results of a lengthy forensic toxicological investigation raised the possibility that the Palestinian leader may have been poisoned with polonium-210. The nine-month study was commissioned by Qatari news channel Al Jazeera and was conducted by the Institut de Radiophysique (IRA) in Lausanne, Switzerland. According to the results, announced in early July, significant traces of the radioactive substance were discovered on the personal artifacts that Arafat used during his final days while in hospital in Paris, France. According to the IRA, some of the Fatah founder’s personal belongings, including his underwear and his toothbrush, contained levels of polonium that were as many as ten times higher than those in random samples used as control subjects in the study. Shortly following the IRA study, Arafat’s wife and daughter filed an official complaint with French judicial authorities, who in turn decided to open an official murder investigation. The decision was taken despite the fact that many in the medical profession appear cautious about the claims of the IRA study. But one British observer told the BBC that the French government was obliged to take the request by the two women “very seriously because of its diplomatic aspect”. Last week, IRA officials in Switzerland said they had received permission from Arafat’s family and the Palestinian National Authority to travel to Ramallah, West Bank, and examine Arafat’s exhumed remains for traces of polonium-210. Back in July, IRA scientists had said that accessing the Palestinian leader’s remains would be required in order to provide a higher level of certainty as to his exact cause of death. News of the murder inquiry has just been announced, so French prosecutors have yet to assign an investigative judge to the case. But Palestinian officials have already welcomed the decision to launch the inquiry. One senior Palestinian Authority official, Saeb Erekat, told French news agency Agence France Presse that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had officially requested the help of French President Francois Hollande in the investigation.

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