Back in 2006, a gut-wrenching story of spies and mysterious poisonings played out in Great Britain; one that read like a plotline from a James Bond movie and ended just as dramatically. Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-Russian KGB agent and vocal critic of Russian president, Vladimir Putin, had fled from prosecution in Russia to receive political asylum in Great Britain, where he lived for a number of years with his family. On November 1, 2006, he unexpectedly fell ill and within three weeks was dead, becoming the first confirmed victim of lethal polonium-210-induced acute radiation syndrome. [Wikipedia]
Now, exactly six years later, the body of Yasser Arafat (who died two years before Litvinenko, in October of 2004) is being exhumed because it is suspected that he, too, was poisoned by this same highly radioactive substance. The surprising timing of this development, during a particularly violent month in Gaza, is due in no small part to the reaction following a nine-month investigation by Al Jazeera into the matter of Arafat’s death. The resulting documentary, What Killed Arafat?, laid out a convincing case for poisoning.
Despite the somewhat confused conclusions regarding the cause of death – cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, even allegations that Arafat was infected with HIV – and despite the fact that tests for poisoning done in Paris at the time of his death revealed no poison in his system (records show Arafat was tested for radioactive agents, but not for the specific alpha radiation found in polonium-210), Al Jazeera’s investigation confirmed that Arafat was, indeed, in excellent condition up till his sudden death. But the most jarring discovery was what was found on his belongings:
Tests reveal that Arafat’s final personal belongings – his clothes, his toothbrush, even his iconic kaffiyeh – contained abnormal levels of polonium, a rare, highly radioactive element. Those personal effects, which were analyzed at the Institut de Radiophysique in Lausanne, Switzerland, were variously stained with Arafat’s blood, sweat, saliva and urine. The tests carried out on those samples suggested that there was a high level of polonium inside his body when he died.
This obviously led to wild speculation and great concern about the true cause of his death:
Several of the doctors who treated Arafat said that they were not allowed to discuss his case – even with Ms. Arafat’s permission – because it was considered a “military secret.” And most of his onetime doctors in Cairo and Tunis refused requests for interviews as well. With those avenues of inquiry closed, Arafat’s body itself would be the last remaining source of conclusive evidence. Exhuming it would require approval from the Palestinian Authority; shipping bone samples outside of the West Bank would require permission from the Israeli government.
Exhuming the body…the only option left to determine exactly what killed Arafat. Which is exactly what has transpired since the release of the July 2012 documentary (which can be viewed in its entirety by clicking the video link at the end of the article).
In a story being reported today in the Daily Beast, writer Tracy McNicoll details the steps set to be taken in the West Bank city of Ramallah next week to exhume Arafat’s body to test it for the presence of polonium-210. It seems after Suha Arafat, Arafat’s wife, viewed the information discovered by Al Jazeera, she attempted to get blood and urine samples for further testing from the French hospital where Arafat died; she was told they’d been destroyed, making exhumation inevitable. Concurrently, she filed a legal complaint in France, which led to the opening of a murder inquiry; the French magistrates involved in that inquiry will be part of the team in Ramallah. The Swiss experts at the Institute of Radiation Physics in Lausanne, who did their own study at Palestinian’s behest, will also be present, and Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, has invited Russian scientists to participate as well.
While the reasons why the exhumation has been ordered are clear, the reasoning behind when, perhaps odd at this particularly volatile time in that corner of the world, happen to involve the science of polonium-210. As McNicoll reports:
“There’s no second chance, for anybody,” Darcy Christen, spokesman for the Institute of Radiation Physics in Lausanne, tells The Daily Beast. “There’s no way we could do this again. If we don’t do it this way, it’s over.” […]
The trouble is, polonium-210 degrades quickly, making the search for it in mortal remains eight years on a true race against the clock. “Every 138 days, the radioactivity of polonium goes down by half. So, roughly since President Arafat died, we’ve gone through 20 or 21 cycles, which is a lot. That means the polonium—if there was any originally—should be very low now,” Christen explains. “If we wait too long, the remaining radiation would be so low that it may not be valid scientifically. So we have actually put a deadline to the end of November, saying that beyond that date, scientifically, [exhuming the body for samples] would not make much sense.”
So with the clock ticking, an international team of experts will work in collaboration on this mystery of global significance and fascination. The wait for answers, however, could be longer than expected or hoped for. Not only does the eight years since Arafat was laid to rest make the condition of his remains hard to predict, but, again, the science of polonium-210 dictates much of the timing:
To confirm the nature of any polonium finding, scientists would have to wait at least one 138-day half-life cycle to observe the discovered material’s decay. Naturally occurring polonium renews itself even as it dies away during the 138-day cycle, while man-made, or unsupported, polonium does not. “I’m sure we will not have any results before spring,” says Christen. “We need at least four to six months to have some kind of evidence and also evidence that has been checked and double-checked.”
A long, suspenseful wait for answers; answers that could potentially be as explosive as so many things are in that tumultuous and unpredictable region of the world.
[To view What Killed Arafat? click the video link below:]