French judges investigating suspicions that Yasser Arafat was poisoned are preparing to travel to the West Bank and have the Palestinian leader’s body exhumed, his widow has said in a statement.
If the trip receives the go-ahead then "French scientific police could very soon take samples" from the body to further their investigations, Suha Arafat said in a statement released by her lawyer on Wednesday.
The investigating magistrates will need approval from both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Authority, has already expressed his government’s willingness to exhume the body from a limestone sepulchre inside Arafat’s mausoleum in Ramallah.
Allegations that the Nobel peace laureate was poisoned were resurrected after Al Jazeera broadcast an investigation in which Swiss experts said they found high levels of radioactive polonium on Arafat’s personal effects.
Polonium is a highly toxic substance which is rarely found outside military and scientific circles, and was used to kill former Russian spy turned Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko, who died in 2006 shortly after drinking tea laced with the poison.
Suha Arafat called on the Arab League and the Palestinian Authority to suspend their own "initiatives" into her husband’s death at a military hospital near Paris in 2004, to leave the way clear for the French probe.
"What is unclear is where this Swiss stand in the wake of the French opening a murder investigation," said Clayton Swisher, the investigative reporter who conducted the 9-month Al Jazeera investigation and who brought on board the University Centre for Legal Medicine to test Arafat’s last personal effects where the polonium discovery was made.
"Scientifically, it only makes sense that two independent labs – in this case, a joint French-Swiss forensic team – be involved at all stages of the exhumation.
“It will strengthen the ultimate findings by having two independent labs present from the onset to agree on a methodology for the exhumation, retrieve the samples, go their separate ways, draw their own conclusions, and later conduct peer review.
“Even though the Swiss made the discoveries in our film, I am told that until now the French have yet to ask for their participation.
“I don’t know if this will satisfy the international aspect of this case for total transparency or meet the historical obligation either. As an analyst, my sense is that Yasser Arafat was too important a figure to have the analysis of his death performed by French experts alone," Swisher said.
Last month, French prosecutors opened a murder enquiry into Arafat’s death aged 75, following claims he may have died of polonium poisoning and the launching of legal action in France by Arafat’s family.
Suha Arafat said she was pleased that the three instructing magistrates had told her lawyer that they were making the necessary moves to gain access to the occupied West Bank and said that she would do whatever she could to help them enter the Palestinian Territory.
No date was given for the trip.
In July the Arab League gave its blessing to a proposal from President Abbas to open an international commission of enquiry into Arafat’s mysterious death.
French doctors never offered an explanation for Arafat’s death, and many Palestinians believe he was poisoned by Israel, which denies the allegations.
Suha Arafat lodged a complaint for murder against persons unknown in France on July 31 over the radioactive poisoning claims.
Arafat was sent to the Percy military hospital in Clamart outside Paris in 2004 after suffering from nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, acute diarrhoea and an abnormally low amount of platelets in the blood.
Doctors at the hospital conducted a wide range of tests but were unable to determine the exact cause of his illness. A few days after his arrival in France, Arafat lapsed into a coma and he died on November 11, 2004.
No autopsy was conducted.
(Al Jazeera and Agencies)