Court rejects attempt to reopen investigation into Yasser Arafat’s death

By Harriet Sherwood

The widow and daughter of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat have lost an attempt to reopen an investigation into his death in 2004.

Suha El Kodwa Arafat and Zahwa El Kodwa Arafat, who are both French nationals, filed a criminal complaint to the European court of human rights that claimed Arafat had been the victim of premeditated murder.

They had appealed to the ECHR after unsuccessful lawsuits in French courts.

In a ruling issued on Thursday, the ECHR said there had been no infringement of the right to a fair hearing and the complaint was “manifestly ill-founded”. The court unanimously declared the complaint inadmissible.

Arafat died on 11 November 2004 in the Percy military hospital near Paris, to which he had been flown from the ruins of the Muqata, the presidential palace in Ramallah in the occupied Palestinian territories.

His cause of death was given as a stroke caused by a blood disorder, but the lack of a clear diagnosis fuelled speculation among his supporters that he had been poisoned by Israel. Israel has always denied any part in his death.

Arafat, who was the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, survivor of multiple assassination plots, and a hero to millions of Arabs for his support for armed struggle against Israel, died at the age of 75. In 1994 he received the Nobel peace prize, along with Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, in the aftermath of the Oslo accords.

Instantly recognisable for his olive green military fatigues and chequered keffiyeh, he had not left the Muqata, reduced to rubble by Israeli tanks, for 18 months before his death, fearing another assassination attempt.

When he fell ill in the autumn of 2004, his medical team first diagnosed gastric flu. But Arafat’s health swiftly deteriorated and he suffered rapid weight loss.

In late October, his aides received permission from Israel for Arafat to travel abroad to receive medical treatment. He was flown to Paris where he died 13 days later. At Suha’s request, no autopsy was carried out after his death.

In 2011, Suha handed over some of Arafat’s personal effects from his deathbed to a reporter from Al Jazeera who passed them to the Institute of Applied Radiophysics in Lausanne for tests. In March 2012, the Swiss institute concluded that there was evidence of polonium-210 poisoning.

The French authorities opened an investigation, and Arafat’s body – interred in the Muqata in Ramallah – was exhumed for tests by French, Swiss and Russian forensic experts. Their official report said exposure to polonium-210 could not be confirmed.

Requests by Suha and Zahwa for further investigations and the admission of additional expert evidence were rejected on the grounds there was insufficient evidence of third party intervention in relation to Arafat’s illness and death.

In 2017, the two women took their case to the ECHR after the French court of appeal upheld the dismissal of their case.

Suha secretly married Arafat in 1990 when she was 27 and he was 61, and converted from Roman Catholicism to Islam. Zawha was born in 1995.