He may have been dead for close on eight years, but former PLO leader Yasser Arafat can’t be said to be resting in peace. After months of renewed speculation over the circumstances of his passing, when Arafat’s wife and daughter filed suit in France on Tuesday, requesting a new judicial inquiry into the former Palestinian leader’s still unexplained demise in Nov. 2004. They hope to persuade courts in France, where Arafat died in a military hospital outside of Paris, to examine new evidence suggesting Arafat might have been murdered by radiation poisoning. Given those suspicions — and the political sensitivity in the case — it seems likely French officials will approve the new petition.
Arafat’s widow, Suha, and 17 year-old daughter, Zahwa, filed papers July 31 requesting an investigation into the causes of the late Palestinian leader’s 2004 death. The exact causes of Arafat’s death were never determined, and long-whispered rumors of undetected foul play swirled anew when results of testing by an independent Swiss laboratory found significantly high traces of polonium-210 on Arafat’s clothes.
That highly radioactive substance was used to kill whistle-blowing former Russian spy Victor Litvinenko in London in 2006 — a killing that some speculation attributed to Moscow. When the Swiss polonium finding was revealed in an Al-Jazeera report last month suggesting Arafat’s death may have been the result of similar foul play, the former leader’s widow decided to ask French authorities to investigate.
“The Al-Jazeera investigation that revealed abnormally high doses of polonium on Arafat’s clothes prodded me to search for the whole truth about the death of my husband,” Suha Arafat told French daily le Figaro Wednesday. “I didn’t even want to think about the possibility of poisoning—it was dangerous to make the claim without proof… [But] after the conclusions of the Swiss laboratory, I went into action.”
Nagging questions and puzzling details are central to the request for the new examination. As Mrs. Arafat notes in her le Figaro interview, she and other interested parties were stunned to learn that in 2008, the French hospital that had cared for her husband prior to his death destroyed all blood and urine samples taken from him during his treatment. That decision strikes some observers as overly hasty given the 10-year window of opportunity in France that family members have to petition for new inquiries into the unsolved deaths of loved ones.
“On top of that, Arafat was a head of state — not just any old patient,” his wife said in her interview. “It’s surprising that a sovereign country like France doesn’t know the cause of death of a head of state who’d been treated in one of its hospitals… That’s the reason why I’m asking in the case for the declassification of the medical report. There’s surely a complete copy of it in the archives somewhere in France.”
Arafat says her legal request “is personal” and “beyond any political context.” Instead, she says she simply wants her daughter and Palestinian people to know the truth about her husband’s death — no matter what cause may eventually be determined.
The Palestinian Authority is of a similar mind. In July it agreed to the exhumation of Arafat’s body from its Ramallah mausoleum for further testing. Yet, as TIME Jerusalem bureau chief Karl Vick’s earlier story notes, most Palestinians and much of the wider Arab world has long blamed Israel for Arafat’s death, making any new investigation highly political regardless of its outcome.
That potential for post-mortem controversy is all the greater given the rarity of alleged or proven cases of poisoning ever being definitively pinned on a perpetrator. The Russian businessman and parliamentarian some officials suspect of having poisoned Litvinenko has never been delivered to British police for questioning, and the case still remains officially unresolved.
Similarly, while it’s known former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned with dioxin in 2004, the author or authors of that plot have never been discovered. Question marks also hover over precisely who jabbed the deadly, ricin-loaded umbrella tip into the leg of Bulgarian dissident Gregori Markov that caused his 1978 death.
And in the face of repeated medical studies debunking the claim, thousands of people continue still believe Napoleon Bonaparte’s British captors poisoned the French emperor by lacing dye he used to color his hair with arsenic. Symptoms of arsenic poisoning are in some ways consistent with the stomach cancer officially listed as Napoleon’s cause of death. But even after tests of the deposed Frenchman’s hair from different parts of his life found no changes in arsenic levels in it leading up to his death, the poisoning claim endures. So, too, is the suspicion of foul play in the death of Yasser Arafat unlikely to be laid to rest no matter what the outcome of the legal proceedings initiated this week by his wife.