What killed Yasser Arafat? France could find the truth

The best opportunity to definitively prove What Killed Arafat – the name we gave the documentary investigation that appeared on al-Jazeera earlier this month – is fast approaching. The lawyers of Yasser Arafat's family are calling for the appointment of an independent judge to look into the cause of his death.

The Palestinian president had arrived at the Percy Military hospital on 29 October 2004, following his unexplained deterioration weeks earlier. He fell into a coma and took his last breath there on 11 November the same year. In our film, we interviewed Swiss scientists who had discovered that elevated levels of polonium-210 in biological stains had come from the clothing Arafat had with him at the hospital.

It is the strongest and only physical evidence to date that Arafat may have been assassinated. You can't pick up radioactive polonium at the supermarket and it has no business being in anybody's blood or urine stains in the levels detected by the Swiss. As death is an element of the crime of murder, it matters not where Arafat may have first come into contact with the nuclear reactor-made substance.

Arafat died in France, under the care of French government officials. His widow Suha and daughter Zahwa are both French citizens. Both are also possible victims of crime, especially 17-year old Zahwa, who was just nine when her father died.

This is why their lawyers have decided to take the matter further. This is possible because France follows the inquisitorial system of criminal justice. Independent judges beyond the whims of domestic politics and the Elysee's sway may gather evidence on complex, major cases, including murder, where the ministry of justice or others have either declined or failed to investigate.

Independent judges can call witnesses and gather sworn testimony. What's more, they can order Arafat's body to be exhumed from its grave in Ramallah, dispatch law enforcement there and have the remains tested, to which Suha Arafat has publicly agreed. The investigative judge will maintain an evidentiary chain of custody of any new biological samples that could be ultimately presented before a court of law chaired by a different independent judge. This is beyond the scope of investigative journalism and presents the best possible hope for justice and real accountability ever being brought in this case.

Should the French elect to take on this historic case, there will be much to examine close to home. The first order of business is to probe the French military hospital and gendarmerie labs, which claimed to have destroyed over a litre of Arafat's urine samples and blood vials in 2008 – after just four years – because no one had bothered to ask for them. Interestingly, more than 30 French medical professionals examined Arafat as he lay on his deathbed, including several who had a specialty in radiological toxins. They should be questioned next.

Gathering evidence in Palestine will be hard and requires co-ordination, though hospitals there may have retained some of Arafat's biological samples from tests in his first 17 days of sickness. Unfortunately, what may have been a valuable crime scene – the two-room office Arafat lived in under siege – was razed and turned into a car park. Investigators should find out why. Doctors in Palestine, as well as from Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia, who physically worked on Arafat and observed his condition should also be interviewed.

The bigger question of who has radioactive polonium and where it comes from must also be addressed, again, without the involvement of politics and with the co-operation of experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

A highly symbolic but less promising track is also being pursued via the Arab League, which has resolved to pursue a UN security council-mandated international investigative commission similar to the one that probed the death of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri.

The Arab League secretary general, Nabil al-Araby, will raise Arafat's case before the five permanent members of the UN security council when they meet in September. They had probably hoped they'd never hear from Arafat again, especially the US and Britain. It is highly unlikely either will keep their finger off the veto trigger and agree to mandate, finance and staff such a commission.

Which leaves the French, who will have to make choices quickly. Owing to the decay of polonium by half every 138.4 days, the Swiss experts say an exhumation of Arafat's body must be carried out swiftly and according to procedure. For scientific integrity and international transparency, the French should also include the Swiss labs in performing corroborating tests. The polonium levels in Arafat's biological stains – his toothbrush, sweat-stained tracksuit, urine-stained underwear and dried blood from his hospital cap – were noticeably higher but still very tiny.

If politicians continue to dither, there may soon be no polonium detectable in Arafat's corpse as it decays into background levels naturally present in the earth. That means we will soon reach a point where knowing the truth is no longer possible.

In the past, France has often joined its western allies in preaching to Palestinians about the importance of accountability and justice. A thorough and exhaustive investigation to reveal what killed this historic figure would present France and its legal system with a unique opportunity to demonstrate those values.

Clayton Swisher is manager of investigative journalism with al-Jazeera Media Network, and author of two books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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