Sunday, November 10, 2013

Ron Smith: Beyond Reasonable Doubt - Polonium-210 and the death of Yasser Arafat

According to a recent report on the death of Yasser Arafat, supplied exclusively to Aljazeera, elevated levels of the radio-isotope polonium-210 were found in the exhumed remains of the former PLO leader.  These were such as to ‘moderately support’ polonium as the cause of his 2004 death.  So was polonium used to kill him and if it was, who did it?

There is no doubt that polonium-210 is a lethal poison.  It was used to kill former Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.  This was established by a post-mortem conducted at the time, although the investigation into the cause of his death was not without some difficulty (This appears to have been the first known example of the use of this agent). 

In this case, the British claim is that the Russians did it; he was simply being eliminated by the Russian security services.  Russian persons had direct contact with Litvinenko just before he became suddenly and fatally ill and (it was said) only the Russian authorities would have had access to the crucial material.  Polonium-210 does occur naturally but not in the amounts required for such a purpose.  In fact, it is made using the neutron flux in the core of a research reactor.  At present Russia is the source of 98% of the world’s supply (it has peaceful uses).  Needless to say, Russian official sources deny any part in the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko.

In the case of Yasser Arafat it is not so clear that polonium poisoning was the cause of his death.  ‘Moderate support’ for the proposition is somewhat short of the usual legal requirement of certainty beyond reasonable doubt, especially when it is conjoined with the observation (also apparently from the Swiss and Russian laboratory reports) that, ‘an unknown origin (for his death), totally unrelated to polonium poisoning, cannot be ruled out’.

The crucial difficulty here is that (at the request of his widow), Yasser Arafat was subjected to no post-mortem after his death, when lethal amounts of polonium-210 might have been found, if it was, indeed, present.  In fact, the cause of death was attributed to ‘a stroke, triggered by abnormal blood conditions’.  There were also suggestions at the time that he might have had AIDS.  This may have contributed to his widow’s resistance to a post mortem.

The essential problem inherent in establishing polonium as the cause of death, nearly nine years later, is its relatively short half-life.  Polonium-210 has a half-life of only 138 days.  This means that after 18 months only one sixteenth of the original material remains and, after more than eight years, there would be only one atom in a million of the original polonium-210 available to be found.  Given that isotopes of plutonium, including polonium-210 are naturally present in the environment, this is a considerable complication, and it is the reason why, even before the tests were performed, some experts were doubting that a positive result could be obtained, even if polonium had been used to poison Yasser Arafat. 

Notwithstanding this, the headline of the Aljazeera report of a few days ago, was that, ‘Swiss scientists who conducted tests on samples taken from Yasser Arafat’s body have found at least 18 times the normal levels of radioactive plutonium in his remains’.  This sounds impressive until it is noted that the normal level is ‘trace’, and that that level is determined by the ambient levels of uranium-238 from which it is derived, by a radioactive decay sequence, and the relatively rapid rate at which it disappears, as noted above.  Of course, even if the ‘radioactive polonium’ referred to in the Aljazeera headline quoted above were entirely polonium-210 (there are some 25 radioactive isotopes of polonium), it would then need to be shown that this would correspond to a lethal dose nearly nine years later, given its 138 day half-life.  It would also need to be shown that the quantities of polonium found were not simply a reflection of a natural variation in the concentration of the source material, uranium-238, which is ubiquitous in the environment.

Given these things, the conclusion that Yasser Arafat was, indeed, murdered by the administration of polonium, cannot be considered to be ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, or even perhaps, considered likely ‘on the balance of probabilities’.  I am being cautious here because there is another factor that needs to be taken into account.  It must be evident to all that a strong conclusion here would be of considerable political potency and that it would be in the interest of involved parties to contrive it; by deliberately planting evidence, for example.  There is clearly room for questions regarding the ‘chain of custody’ of the evidence from the Arafat effects (some items of clothing, for example), which was used to justify the exhumation.  Doubts may be easier to assuage in regard to the removal of the actual material from Arafat’s tomb, although local interested parties would have known that this was about to occur. 

It should be added here that those associated with the production of the report have no such doubts.  Arafat was poisoned using polonium and this was done by the Israelis, who had both the motivation and the capability, through their nuclear technology.

Since the actual death of former President Arafat took place in France (Paris, in fact), the French authorities are also  investigating the case and it will be interesting to see what conclusions they come to regarding the part played by polonium-210 in the death of Yasser Arafat, and, perhaps even in respect of who, if any one, murdered him.  In the meantime the well-known Scottish legal verdict may be appropriate: ‘not proven’.

1 comment:

Brian said...

Not Proven sums it up. But why the time lapse?

This is just another effort to discredit Israel by the Muslims. Especially so, with John Kerry bleating such pathetic rubbish about the likelihood of Iran becoming non-nuclear (or rather military non- nuclear).

We went through this sort of political appeasement way back with Hitler, and later with Stalin during the "Cold War"period. But then we had leaders like Reagan and Thatcher.

Until Muslims understand that threats to eliminate Israel and Western Civilization come up against the fact that we will not be intimidated or divided Furthermore, any such attack will see the attacker devastated. For we will protect our way of life by whatever means that are needed.

That is all the message Mr. Kerry and Europe needs to tell Iran.
Politically unacceptable in these times?? Probably so for today's breed of Politicians; but not for Statesmen.