Profile: Mordechai Vanunu

Mordechai Vanunu worked as a technician at Dimona, Israel's secret nuclear installation, from 1976 to 1985. At that time Israel was insisting it would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East. Vanunu discovered that Israel had already secretly developed an extensive nuclear program and was hiding its existence from the Israeli people and the world. He felt very troubled about this.

In 1985, Vanunu was made redundant. The 30-year-old set out on a round-the-world journey that would change his life forever. He visited Nepal, Burma and Thailand before arriving in Australia, where he got some temporary work and began attending a local Anglican church. The vicar, the Rev John MacKnight, befriended him. In 1986, Mordechai decided to become a Christian. At his baptism he took the new name of John. In his new church community, Vanunu became involved in a group discussing justice and peace issues. This lead him, after much soul-searching, to decide to reveal Israel's nuclear secrets to the Sunday Times.

"Israel was posing such a danger I felt it was my Christian duty to tell the world what was happening" he said.

Soon after the revelations were published he was tracked down by Mossad, kidnapped, drugged and returned to Israel. A closed court convicted him of treason and espionage and sentenced him to 18 years imprisonment. Mordechai served the first 12 years in solitary confinement (two years with the lights on 24 hours a day).

Throughout his imprisonment Vanunu became a symbol for the peace movement. Church and peace groups around the world mounted campaigns for his release and he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. On April 21 2004, Vanunu was finally released from prison, but he is being kept under virtual house arrest at St George's Anglican Cathedral in East Jerusalem.

He is forbidden to speak with foreigners and journalists and not allowed to leave Israel or go near a foreign embassy. A spokeswoman for the Israeli Embassy in London, Shula Davidovitch, said that Vanunu has been placed under these restrictions because it is believed he still has military secrets which could endanger Israel's security.

I met Mordechai Vanunu at St George's two weeks ago. I recognised him from his pictures, the minute he put his head round the door of the refectory at St George's, where I was eating lunch with a group of visitors from the UK. He joined us for coffee. This man doesn't seem like someone who has been locked in a prison cell for 18 years. He looks fit. He has a kind face, a strong handshake and a calm and friendly manner.

The first thing I asked him was how he had coped with so many years in prison. Mordechai said: "My faith kept me going. Especially during the solitary confinement. I prayed a lot. One of my favourite prayers was St Paul's words: 'For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

Like Nelson Mandela during his long imprisonment on Robben Island, Vanunu exercised each day. He said: "Sometimes I exercised too much I think, because at times I felt very angry. I also used to read in English in a loud voice and sing. I loved to listen to music, especially opera. I read many books and studied. I listened to news on the BBC World Service every day for 18 years, right the way through to the end of the Cold War.

"For 12 years I was completely alone. Then they put me in with some other prisoners. They were really hard criminals who were trying to win favour from the guards and made my life difficult."

When Vanunu was finally released from prison, he said, the main thing he needed was rest. "They try to make you into an animal in prison," he said.

"I needed to recover. It was wonderful to be out in the world. It is good to be able to talk with people. To see friends. Simple things like eating ice cream." Although Vanunu is out of prison his life is very restricted. I wondered how he felt about this.

He said: "At first I was nervous about security. The media in Israel has been so hostile to me that many people hate me. But in this place and in this part of Jerusalem I am with friends. It is wonderful to be here and have more freedom of movement. I read. Listen to music. Pray. I like to see friends and go for walks.

Vanunu keeps up with current affairs and is very concerned at recent events in Israel. "It is so sad," he said. "Instead of building up people, building communities, Israel has built nuclear weapons. "Now they are angry about Iran possibly developing nuclear weapons. Bur Iran is just following what Israel did years ago. I hope each time it's mentioned in the news, people remember that. I don't understand why Tony Blair doesn't say something about this. They speak about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and Iran but not about the ones Israel has." Vanunu is very sad about the Separation Wall that now encircles Bethlehem. He said: "When I saw it I was shocked. People should come and see for themselves and see how it violates the human rights of Palestinians on the West Bank. Then they should write to their MPs and ask them to intervene. It does not stop terror and does not even follow the Green Line. It is designed to grab land and make people's lives more difficult. The Israelis ignored the International Court of Justice, which has called it illegal. Perhaps if Tony Blair said something they would respect his views."

Speaking about the recent victory of Hamas in the Occupied Territories, Vanunu said: "I hope they will do much better than their predecessors. Fatah were very corrupt. I hope Israel will give Hamas a chance to get established."

Vanunu said he thought the blasphemous cartoons were released in an effort to provoke trouble, to destabilise the region - "even before Hamas has their cabinet organised." But, he said: "I don't think they will succeed."

Last Christmas Eve Vanunu was arrested for trying to go to Bethlehem to attend Midnight Mass. The authorities said that by making the trip (a 20 minute drive from St George's) he was 'going out of Israel'. He has also been charged with talking to 21 foreign journalists. Vanunu has attended court several times in the last few weeks to face these charges. His lawyer has defended him by saying that he should be allowed to follow free speech under the Israeli Constitution. The court is scheduled to meet again in May to consider evidence for and against the proposition that there is 'no case to answer' under Israeli law. Vanunu said he is prepared to accept whatever the court decides. He said: "I survived imprisonment for 18 years. I will survive another two if I have to. When I am finally free I want to live abroad and continue to work for the abolition of nuclear weapons. I am looking forward to leading a normal life. Travelling to other parts of the world. Seeing the English countryside."

Pax Christi International has expressed grave concern at Vanunu's latest indictment. In a statement to the UN Commission on Human Rights they said: "Whatever one's opinion concerning the legality of Mr Vananu original actions, it is clear that he has paid for them quite fully. It is also clear that much of his sentence was served under conditions that constitute psychological torture."

"Over the past year he has only repeated what has now become public knowledge, and no new or classified information is forthcoming. Alleged risks to Israeli national security are not justified or proportionate to these restrictions. Mr Vanunu should be permitted to speak freely according to his conscience about the dangers of nuclear proliferation. To limit this freedom constitutes a grievous violation of a basic right."

Bruce Kent, vice chair of Pax Christi said: "It would do the reputation of Israel no end of good to release this man. After 18 years in prison he cannot possibly have any information that would be remotely useful. The nuclear physicist Frank Barnaby has confirmed this. The industry has moved on. If Israel wants to show itself to be a modern and compassionate nation they should just let him go."

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