Arafat did not die of poisoning, French tests conclude

Yasser Arafat was not the victim of poisoning, French forensic tests concluded on Tuesday, countering the theory put forward by a Swiss report on the 2004 death of the Palestinian leader.

The French conclusions were immediately challenged by his widow Suha Arafat, who has argued the death was a political assassination by someone close to her husband. A senior Palestinian official dismissed the report as “politicized”.

“You can imagine how much I am shaken by the contradictions between the findings of the best experts in Europe in this domain,” Suha Arafat, dressed in black and reading from a written statement, told a news conference in Paris.

“I am accusing no one. This is in the hands of justice and it is just the beginning,” she said, requesting that the Swiss report be made available to French judges examining the case.

Arafat, who signed the 1993 Oslo interim peace accords with Israel but then led an uprising after subsequent talks broke down in 2000, died aged 75 in a French hospital in November 2004. His death came four weeks after he fell ill after a meal, suffering from vomiting and stomach pains.

The official cause of death was a massive stroke, but French doctors said at the time they were unable to determine the origin of his illness. No autopsy was carried out.

Swiss forensic experts stirred controversy last month by announcing that results from their tests of samples taken from Arafat's body were consistent with polonium poisoning, while not absolute proof of the cause of death.

The report handed to Suha Arafat will not be published, but a source who had seen it quoted extracts to Reuters.

“The results of the analyses allow us to conclude that the death was not the result of poisoning,” the source quoted it as concluding. “Measurements of Polonium 210 and other radioactive substances taken from biological samples of the body are consistent with a natural environmental origin.”


A Palestinian official dismissed the French findings.

“The French report is politicized and is contrary to all the evidence which confirms that the president was killed by poisoning,” senior Palestinian official Wasel Abu Yousef told Reuters in Ramallah.

“This report is an attempt to cover up what happened in Percy hospital,” he said of the French military hospital near Paris where Arafat was taken for treatment in 2004.

There are few known cases of polonium poisoning, the most famous recent example being that of defecting Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, who drank a poisoned cup of tea in a London hotel in 2006.

“We have no doubt that the most comprehensive and thorough report that examined all aspects of this case remains the Swiss report,” Suha Arafat's lawyer Saad Djebbar told Reuters.

A radiation scientist who examined the Swiss and the French reports for Suha Arafat said both studies had found similar levels of Polonium 210 in Arafat's body but differed in their explanations of how it got there.

The scientist, who declined to be named, said the French report concluded that some of the radioactivity could be explained by the presence of radon gas in the tomb where Arafat was buried.

Additional reporting by Noah Browning and Ali Sawafta; Editing by Mark John and Mark Heinrich

Alcohol poisoning suspected in man’s death after Florida Purim celebration

A man was found dead, apparently of alcohol poisoning, in the parking lot of a Florida Chabad center following a Purim celebration.

Jesse Allen, 28, was found dead on the morning of Mar. 9 in the parking lot of the Chabad Lubavitch of Greater Daytona by the synagogue’s rabbi, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reported on Thursday.

Allen had attended the synagogue’s Purim party the night before. Rabbi Pinchas Ezagui said there was no alcohol served at the party, but several people had brought their own

The death was apparently due to alcohol poisoning but police are awaiting the results of a toxicology report to determine the cause, Ormond Beach police Lt. Kenny Hayes told the paper.

Ezagui said Allen had become so intoxicated at the party that he had urinated on himself. Another member of the synagogue escorted Allen outside to sleep off his drunkenness on the grass.

“It is a very unfortunate situation,” Ezagui said. “We don’t know the guy. He is not of the Jewish faith.”

Allen’s mother Lynn said her son loved Jewish tradition and was struggling to overcome an alcohol problem.

Moscow poisonings bring only shrugs and rumors here

The phone rings and it’s the media. I get the usual questions: “How does the Russian-speaking community feel about the poisoning in Moscow of Marina Kovalevsky, 49, and her 26-year-old daughter, Yana?”

The two women, who are Jewish and have contributed to Israeli charities, fell ill in late February, a week after they arrived in Moscow on a pleasure trip to visit with friends and to attend a wedding. They were rushed to a hospital and found to have been poisoned with thallium, and after being treated with the help of Leon Peck — Marina Kovalevsky’s brother, who is a Beverly Hills oral surgeon — the women returned to Los Angeles, where last week Yana Kovalevsky told federal and county investigators that she believes the poisoning was an accident.

“Would you say that the people are upset?” I was asked. As a journalist in Russian-language media and longtime advocate for Soviet Jewry, I am often called upon to explain how the Russians think:”Are they nervous? Is it anti-Semitism? Did she know the former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko — the guy who was poisoned by polonium in London?”

Most of the questions are impossible to answer, either because I don’t know the answers or because the question is not specific enough.

How does one judge a community’s feelings? What part of the community? The older immigrants who spent their bleak lives in the Soviet Union and came to a country that is so different that it might as well be Mars? The younger ones who came here as children, who speak English better than they do Russian, but still date one another and aren’t all that comfortable with the “real” Americans their age?

The most recent entrepreneurs who came here with money, eager to make more, who travel back and forth, convinced that the good times will go on forever?

I am part of that community because I spoke Russian as a kid, speak Russian with my wife and most of our friends and was involved in the Soviet Jewry movement. But I am also an American who speaks English better than Russian.

I have lived here most of my life, have had a wife and children who didn’t speak a word of Russian, and I find that much of what is normal for the Russians is actually very strange and, very often, funny. In Russian, I am “ni ryba ni miaso” — neither fish nor meat — and in English I am neither fish nor fowl. I don’t really know how the Russian community feels about the Kovalevskys’ misfortune of being poisoned by thallium in Moscow. It all depends.

So what should I say to the media? Should I say that the most frequent response is a shrug and a “What did you expect? What’s the big deal? That’s the way things are over there.” And if there are others listening, someone will usually chime in, “And they always will be like that.”

There are very few who were surprised by what happened. If they talk about it at all, the question, “Why?” Is usually seen as pointless speculation. “What’s the use? We’ll never know what really happened.”

Rumors abound. Conspiracy theories flourish. The Russian community knows — absolutely knows — that nothing is ever what it seems.

Take your pick: It was a robbery. She tried to invest in a Russian business and offended the wrong people. She was contacted by political opponents of Putin and refused (or agreed) to collaborate with them. The whole thing is an effort to embarrass Russia/America/ Israel. There never was a poisoning (who can believe that there was no antidote, an artist’s paint, Prussian Blue, available in all of Moscow, and that it had to be brought in a by a private individual from America — and what else did he bring in, hmm?)

And if I look doubtful when I hear some of this nonsense, I get the pitying look that Americans get from Russians — “God, how naïve these Americans are?”

In a way they are right. Americans know next to nothing about law enforcement over there.

When I was in Moscow about 15 years ago, I was invited by a friend to dinner in his apartment. One of the guests was a Moscow police colonel, resplendent in his uniform and medals. As we sipped our post- (and pre- and during) dinner ice-cold vodka, he told me how he envied American cops. I looked surprised, and he gave me that — “how naïve you are” — look.

“Don’t you see? An American policeman can stop anyone, and if the guy gives him a hard time, he can just pull out his gun and shoot him, right? Well, we can’t do that here, you know….”

A few weeks ago, a group of Russian law enforcement officers came to California to meet with local law enforcement in order to learn how we deal with hate crimes and how our officers develop relationships with communities they serve. I am a member of the L.A. Sheriff’s Department Russian Community Advisory Board, and we were all invited to meet with the Russian officers for an informal exchange of views and ideas.

I came prepared. I pulled off the Internet, in just that one day, seven reports of racially motivated attacks throughout Russia: beatings, kidnappings, threats, arson against Asians, Caucasian minorities and black foreign students.

I told the Russians that I am often called to testify as an expert witness at immigration courts, where a refugee is asked to prove that it would be dangerous to be sent back to Russia, where he or she would be persecuted for racial, religious or political reasons.

The cases are diverse but, overwhelmingly, have one thing in common: the distrust of law enforcement. Most applicants smile bitterly if asked whether they reported the incidents to the police and generally reply, “No, not this time. I had done so in the past but nothing happened, so I stopped bothering.” Or even worse: “No, it is too dangerous. If I complained, I probably would be dead — and probably the cops would be the ones who would catch me in a dark alley.”

I was shocked to see that some of the cops nodded when I told them — politely — that they had a terrible image; that people didn’t trust them, believed they were no better than the mafia they were supposed to control. Our visitors knew and probably were surprised — maybe pleased — that here was a Russian-speaking American who knew what was what.