Wednesday, February 11, 2004

PARIS (Reuters) — French prosecutors said yesterday they had opened an inquiry into transfers totaling $11.5 million into bank accounts held in France by Suha Arafat, the wife of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The Paris public prosecutor confirmed a report in Le Canard Enchaine weekly that an inquiry about Mrs. Arafat, who lives in Paris, was started in October after information provided by the Bank of France and a government anti-money-laundering body.

The prosecutor’s office said they wanted to check transfers from a Swiss-based institution made between July 2002 and July 2003 into two separate accounts held by her in Paris.

The office said the probe is in the preliminary stage, meaning its aim is to determine whether there is sufficient grounds to take matters further.

Mrs. Arafat could not be contacted for comment.

Neither she nor her husband has previously been subject to a criminal investigation involving their finances, though both have repeatedly been accused of receiving misappropriated funds.

A report by the International Monetary Fund in September found that Mr. Arafat had diverted $900 million donated for the Palestinian people to his own private bank account, according to news accounts, and CBS News reported late last year that the Palestinian leader had diverted $800 million in Palestinian aid money to a private account for his wife and daughter.

Other accusations that donor money has been siphoned off by corrupt officials or diverted to militants carrying out a suicide bombing campaign against Israel have contributed in a drop in foreign contributions to the Palestinian Authority.

On Saturday, more than 300 members of Mr. Arafat’s ruling Fatah movement resigned collectively, demanding an end to corruption and greater democracy within Fatah and the Palestinian Authority.

Mr. Arafat has rejected all charges of corruption in the organization.

Palestinians were surprised when word emerged in 1992 of Mr. Arafat’s secret marriage to the much younger Suha.

With her uncovered hair and expensive, Western-style clothes, she cut an unlikely figure during visits to Gaza. Her visits appear to have become rarer in recent years.

She has caused Mr. Arafat a fair number of headaches over the years with denunciations of purported corruption, cronyism and human rights abuses in the Palestinian Authority.

French prosecutors said the result of their preliminary probe would be known in a few months. They then have the option of opening a formal investigation, which under French law is the final step before any charges are filed.

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