By Robert Templer, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Robert Templer is a former International Crisis Group Asia Program director and author of a forthcoming book, 'The History of Poison.' The views expressed are his own.
Yasser Arafat’s body has been exhumed to investigate if he was poisoned. A Turkish newspaper has alleged that that a former president, Turgut Ozal, was given doses of DDT and radioactive polonium-210 to hasten his death. In the African country of Benin, a former trade minister has been arrested on charges of trying to mix a toxin into the president’s medicine. In China, a contender for the Communist Party leadership was brought down after his wife allegedly poisoned a British businessman.
It would seem we are entering a new age of the poisoner, a menace with echoes of Renaissance Italy or Victorian Britain. Has the powder or potion become the assassin’s weapon of choice, as it was said to be in ancient Rome? Probably not, but poisonings still evoke fears beyond other means of murder. The secrecy, the malice aforethought and the thought of a slow, agonizing death still rattle us all. But although accusations of poisoning are fairly common, proof is rare.
From the moment Arafat died in 2004, rumors started to swirl that he had been poisoned. French doctors who had treated him denied this, but the accusations were stoked by a Jordanian doctor involved in his care and his wife, Suha. Arafat had seemed almost immortal, surviving numerous assassination attempts over the years. That he had died of a brain hemorrhage brought on by an infection, according to his doctors, just seemed too mundane.
Many Palestinians immediately pointed the finger at the Israelis. They had motive, means and some history. In 1997, Mossad agents tried to kill Hamas leader Khaled Meshal by spraying what was probably the anesthetic levofentanyl into his ear. The attempt failed and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was forced to provide an antidote. Unfortunately, the botched operation stoked a widespread view across the Middle East that the Jewish state was willing to use what amounted to chemical warfare against its enemies.
That idea tapped into a deep vein of anti-Semitic thought that Jews were particularly proficient and eager poisoners. “Sometimes I go about and poison wells,” says Barabas in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. The stereotype had run deep for centuries; outbreaks of sickness would result in Jews being accused of murder and then being subjected to vicious pogroms.
In 1594, Rodrigo Lopez, a Portuguese doctor who was one of just a handful of Jews in London, was executed for trying to poison Queen Elizabeth. He was the society doctor of his day, a favorite at court and possibly something of a schemer. But when he fell afoul of powerful rivals, the easiest way to get rid of a Jewish physician was to accuse him of poisoning. Elizabeth found it hard to believe, and for a while refused to sign his death warrant. She eventually relented and Lopez was hanged and quartered, his remains displayed on the city gates. There is no evidence of a plot to kill the queen.
The fears of Jewish doctors and the use of poison accusations persisted into the 20th century. In January 1953, an article appeared in the official Soviet newspaper Pravda under a headline: “Vicious Spies and Killers under the Mask of Academic Physicians.” Among those arrested in the so-called “Doctors’ Plot” was Boris Shimelovich, a former chief surgeon of the Red Army, and Miron Vovsi, Stalin’s personal physician. They were accused of killing a number of senior officials who had supposedly died of heart attacks while under their care. “The filthy face of this Zionist spy organization, covering up their vicious actions under the mask of charity, is now completely revealed,” Pravda proclaimed. A wave of anti-Semitic persecutions followed the revelation of the plot. It was fortunately cut short by Stalin’s death and the admission that the story had been a fabrication.
Arafat might have been poisoned. Certainly the former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko (dioxin) and the spy Alexander Litvinenko (polonium-210) were, both probably by Russian agents. But even if the Palestinian leader was poisoned, it may not have been by the Israelis. Plenty of Palestinians and others had motive, means and access. And history has shown time and again that the first version of events surrounding a possible poisoning is rarely accurate.
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