The decision to re-examine Arafat’s death came after the discovery of a radioactive isotope on his clothes [EPA]
Criminal investigators from France are to exhume Yasser Arafat’s remains next month in a bid to find out how the Palestinian leader died, a French official has said.
The official said on Tuesday that the team will arrive sometime between November 24 and November 26 in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Suha Arafat’s request followed a nine-month investigation by Al Jazeera that found that the Palestinian leaders’ final belongings contained elevated levels of polonium, a rare, highly radioactive element.
Palestinian authorities confirmed the timetable for Arafat’s exhumation and said a separate Swiss investigative team would also arrive in the city at the same time.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
Darcy Christen, a spokeswoman for Switzerland’s Institute of Radiation Physics, which is expected to conduct the autopsy for the Swiss team, said no date has been confirmed yet.
The immediate cause of Arafat’s death in November 2004 was a stroke, but the underlying source of an illness he suffered in his final weeks has never been clear. The discovery of polonium revived suspicions of poisoning.
Investigators from France and Switzerland are to conduct parallel probes into Arafat’s death, acting separately on behalf of Suha Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, who each have misgivings about the other’s investigation.
While their probes are separate, the French and the Swiss are to visit the grave together and will only be allowed one chance to draw samples, according to Palestinian officials.
Earlier this month, the Palestinians said the process of digging up Arafat’s remains will be conducted privately.
But keeping the event a secret is likely to be a challenge since Arafat lies in a giant mausoleum outside government headquarters in a central area of Ramallah.
Polonium is so rare and dangerous that would be evidence of assassination by only a few possible culprits.
By mass, polonium-210 is around 250,000 times more toxic than hydrogen cyanide (the actual LD50 for 210Po is less than 1 microgram for an average adult (see below) compared with about 250 milligrams for hydrogen cyanide). The main hazard is its intense radioactivity (as an alpha emitter), which makes it very difficult to handle safely. Even in microgram amounts, handling 210Po is extremely dangerous, requiring specialized equipment (a negative pressure alpha glove box equipped with high performance filters), adequate monitoring, and strict handling procedures to avoid any contamination. Alpha particles emitted by polonium will damage organic tissue easily if polonium is ingested, inhaled, or absorbed, although they do not penetrate the epidermis and hence are not hazardous as long as the alpha particles remain outside of the body. Meanwhile, wearing chemically resistant and “intact” gloves is a mandatory precaution to avoid transcutaneous diffusion of polonium directly through the skin. Polonium delivered in concentrated nitric acid can easily diffuse through inadequate gloves (e.g., latex gloves) or the acid may damage the gloves.