Yasser Arafat poisoning

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Last year I chose the exhumation of Yasser Arafat as one of my stories of the year and promised I would come back to it if further information was given.

 

Here’s what I wrote back in December last year:

The biggest story in November was Yasser Arafat’s exhumation.  Was this to investigate suspected polonium poisoning?

Eight years after his death there were strong rumours he had been poisoned in the same way as the infamous Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko.  There was no post mortem exam initially, which meant no collection of any bodily samples.  The exhumation was to enable collection of samples to determine whether there was anything foreign present.

Indeed rumors had been rife since his death at age 75 in November 2004 that foul play was suspected.  This interesting article ‘What Killed Arafat?’ in the New York Times from September 2005 summarizes the theories in circulation at the time – from AIDS to ricin – whilst suggesting that only an autopsy at the time would have cleared things up.  One of the rumours involved polonium, and this was the main target of the further analyses. Polonium is a highly radioactive element which emits alpha radiation. This means it is not harmful through the skin, but is very harmful if swallowed.  When swallowed only very tiny amounts of polonium are required to be fatal (an amount so small it would not be visible to the eye).  Personal artifacts were tested in 2012 and found to contain elevated polonium which was enough evidence for the courts to order an exhumation be carried out.

Following his exhumation last year, samples were collected from his body. These samples were analysed at the University Hospital in Lausanne and reported last week.

The findings have been widely reported in the press or you can read the full report for extensive detail (commissioned by Al Jazeera).  The main findings were: detection of polonium 210 in bone fragments fitting with the general pattern of illness (although some unspecific symptoms); the distribution of the polonium in the body was not uniform, indicating ingestion shortly before death, as chronic poisoning would make the poison distribute evenly in the body; and lead was also found to be raised (which is present in commercially available polonium).

The main talking point has been whether the evidence supports the poisoning of Arafat with polonium.  Several issues have been bought up:

  • There was no chain of custody for the personal effects tested (where they had been for 8 years?)
  • The samples of most use (taken by the hospitals when ill, before death) were all destroyed without analysis for polonium
  • The time between death and analysis (8 years) is very long in terms of half life of polonium (138 days). In 8 years the initial value would have halved 21 times (to determine the level 8 years later you can take the level at the time of death and divide by 2.1 million).
  • There have been very few documented cases of polonium poisoning and they did not involve exhumations 8 years later, so we have very little prior knowledge to refer to.

With this in mind the Swiss report states that their evidence offered ‘moderate support’ to the hypothesis that death was due to polonium.  Moderate is not conclusive. Moderate may pass the ‘balance of probabilities’ test for civil procedures but would perhaps not support the ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ required at a criminal hearing. In any court context would also be required in the estimation of the power of the evidence – as pointed out by Dave Barclay in an editorial for Al Jazeera. No doubt he would have been aware of the context of his piece being hosted on the site of those paying for the investigation, which does not invalidate his claims that the evidence is conclusive, but dampens the impact of his statement.

Was Yasser Arafat poisoned with polonium?  Probably!

 

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Dr Tom Bassindale

About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. Dr B is currently a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. And yes... he watches CSI.