Swiss scientists: Arafat's remains are consistent with polonium poisoning

His widow had French, Russian, and Swiss scientists examine his remains and the clothes he wore in his final months. The first two teams haven’t weighed in yet but the third now has. Verdict: Death by ingestion — possibly. The actual finding is “The results moderately support the proposition that the death was the consequence of poisoning with polonium 210.” What does that mean? Different members of the team seem to have different degrees of certainty:

“You don’t accidentally or voluntarily absorb a source of polonium — it’s not something that appears in the environment like that,” said Patrice Mangin, director of the Lausanne University Hospital’s forensics center. He said he could not say unequivocally what killed Arafat — the biological samples obtained just last year were far too degraded.

“Our results reasonably support the poisoning theory,” said Francois Bochud, director of the Institute of Radiation Physics that carried out the probe, though he was careful to emphasize the lingering questions that will require further investigation to answer.

“Can we exclude polonium as cause of death? The response is clearly ‘no,’ he said. “Was polonium the cause of the death for certain? The answer is no.”

So … maybe? Arafat’s wife, naturally, is screeching that assassination has now been “confirmed” and “scientifically proved,” which isn’t true but is within the realm of possibility. In that case, whodunnit? Maybe not who you think.

But suspicion also clings to Arafat’s inner circle. It’s a logical suspicion given the crucial question of access to his food — and the Swiss study assumes the polonium was ingested (which the report says might explain why, while he displayed other symptoms consistent with radiation poisoning, his hair did not fall out). Some analysts say the “insider” scenario is supported by the dire political situation at the time — the Palestinian cause was being held hostage with Arafat unbending at its helm, leading his people — many believed — nowhere.

Various aides to Ariel Sharon, who was prime minister when Arafat died, denied this week that Israel targeted him. There was no need to, said one. By 2004, Arafat had been marginalized, locked away in the Muqata. Another aide claimed that Sharon had warned his inner circle to take every precaution against killing Arafat. With good reason: If a secret assassination had been quickly uncovered, the reprisals from Palestinians could have cost Israel more than it conceivably might have gained by liquidating Arafat.

Another key question: If he was poisoned, exactly how much polonium did the assassin feed him? One of the quirks of the element is that it degrades quickly, with a half-life of just 138 days. An Israeli scientist >estimated last summer after the polonium theory first started circulating that, after eight years, there’d be only in the original sample that was still radioactive. Seems awfully strange that Arafat had received a dose so high that there might still be trace amounts left now and yet somehow not so high as to have contaminated his wife or anyone else in his orbit. It’s also strange that he didn’t lose his hair and actually enjoyed a brief recovery during his last months before succumbing, neither of which are consistent with polonium poisoning. Did he really ingest the substance — or was polonium surreptitiously introduced into his remains and clothes later to feed the assassination theory?

As if all of that isn’t enough, Russian media published a report last month claiming that a scientist on the Russian team that examined Arafat’s remains told them, “He could not have been poisoned with polonium. The research conducted by Russian experts found no traces of this substance.” The Russian team then issued a formal statement denying that it had reached any conclusions yet about Arafat’s death; the reporters who spoke to the scientist responded by standing by their report. Do the Russian findings contradict the Swiss? If so, why aren’t they being released?

Here’s Al Jazeera, which certainly has no rooting interest, reporting on the Swiss results.