Prison Release Near for Atomic Tattletale

Vanunu Ponders Future After 19 Years Behind Bars for Espionage

By Elli Wohlgelernter

Published March 26, 2004, issue of March 26, 2004.
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JERUSALEM — The scene at Shikma Prison in Ashkelon on April 21 is sure to be a major media event, with fans, foes and reporters from the world over waiting outside when convicted nuclear spy Mordechai Vanunu walks free for the first time since 1986. But what happens the day after is the issue now confronting the Israeli government, which is still deliberating exactly what restrictions to place on Vanunu. The debate centers on whether the 49-year-old former nuclear technician continues to pose a security risk 19 years after last working at an Israel facility in the Negev town of Dimona.

Vanunu was convicted of treason and espionage on March 24, 1988, for providing The Sunday Times of London with classified information about Israel’s nuclear secrets. He was seized by Israeli officials in Rome on September 30, 1986 — five days before The Sunday Times published the story — after being lured there from London by a Mossad agent named “Cindy.” Vanunu was tried in secret by a three-judge court, and sentenced to 18 years, the first 11 of which were served in solitary confinement.

Prime Minister Sharon said last month that Vanunu would be released on schedule, but ordered him to be closely monitored and subject to restrictions, which are likely to include denying him a passport for a probationary period and permission to travel abroad. Contact with the media is also likely to be severely restricted.

Vanunu submitted a request for a passport in February, and the Israel Prison Service transferred his appeal to the chief security officer of the Defense Ministry, Yehiel Horev, and the Shin Bet security service. But the application so far has not reached the Interior Ministry, the only body authorized to issue passports to Israeli citizens.

The government’s expressed fear is that Vanunu could now expose things that he didn’t reveal back then, including the names of Dimona researchers and descriptions of security precautions at the site. Israeli officials say they worry that Vanunu could still reveal sensitive data about locally developed atomic technologies.

Vanunu, however, rejected such claims, through a statement released by his brother, Meir. “What they say, that I have additional secrets, it’s a lie, an excuse and a cover-up, and they know that very well,” Vanunu said. “All that I know was published.”

Israeli Attorney General Menahem Mazuz, speaking at a March 9 meeting of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, said he was opposed to placing Vanunu in administrative detention following his release, but said certain restrictions should be implemented in order to prevent Vanunu from revealing additional information about Israel’s nuclear secrets. Mazuz’s concerns, as well as those of the Defense Ministry’s Horev, are based on letters Vanunu sent from jail stating his intent to leave the country upon his release and publicize all the information he has in his possession in an effort to harm Israel. Horev said a psychiatrist who met with Vanunu confirmed the prisoner’s stated intentions.

Vanunu’s brother, Meir, said that there is nothing left to reveal. “Mordechai has no more secrets to tell,” Meir Vanunu told Reuters. “He has the right to speak out against Israeli policies if he wants, but that is not the same as compromising national security.”

Pundits are speculating that the government’s real concern is not what Vanunu will reveal, but that his mere public presence would focus unwanted attention on Israel’s nuclear weapons program, at a time when Iran, North Korea and other countries are being pressured to abandon theirs. There is already pressure on Israel as the only state in the region that refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or allow international inspections of its nuclear, chemical and biological facilities.

What seems certain is that Vanunu is destined to remain a lightening rod on the issue of nuclear arms. His impending freedom has supporters overjoyed, with numerous Web sites devoted to his cause and one even displaying a clock counting down the days till his release.

To his legion of international supporters in the United States and elsewhere, Vanunu is a hero, a peace-loving man with a conscience who thought the world had a right to know of the huge nuclear arsenal Israel was developing.

Many of those supporters will be on hand with the reporters to welcome him out of jail, including Nick and Mary Eoloff, antinuclear activists from Minnesota who adopted Vanunu and tried to secure him U.S. citizenship. The two activists are among the few people allowed to visit the jailed nuclear technician. Also expected is Irish peace activist Mairead Corrigan Maguire, who won the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize and nominated Vanunu for the award in 2001. Vanunu has been nominated for the Nobel Prize each year since 1987.

An invitation to the Knesset is also on the agenda. Arab lawmaker Issam Makhoul, of the Hadash-Ta’al Party, said he plans to invite prominent people from around the world, including the Eoloffs and leaders of the nuclear disarmament movement, to hear Vanunu speak on nuclear disarmament in Israel and the Middle East.

However, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, a Likud member, said he would not approve Makhoul’s invitation and would prohibit use of the Knesset auditorium or lecture hall. “Yes, each member of Knesset is allowed to hold one large meeting in the Knesset building each year,” Rivlin said. “However, this is a provocation for provocation’s sake. Inviting a person who has been convicted of treason to the Knesset and using the Knesset to glorify his treason is beyond consideration.”

For Vanunu’s part, just making it to April 21 is enough of a victory. Upon hearing the news last month that he would indeed be released, according to his brother, Vanunu exclaimed: “I won. I’ll be free. The gates and the locks will be opened. They didn’t succeed in breaking me or driving me mad after all these years of solitary confinement.”

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