Report from Ashkelon
When Will They Let This Good Man Go Free?

by Mary and Nick Eoloff

The grim, grey walls and barbed wire fencing were as ugly as before but the occasion was more joyful than ever when we entered Ashkelon Prison in Israel on May 25th for our sixth visit with Mordechai Vanunu, our adopted son. Trim, robust, and sun-tanned, he greeted us with a smile.

The prison had granted us a two-hour visit-twice the customary stay. We made the most of our time.

After hugs and kisses with Mordechai and admonitions from the prison to avoid discussing "certain matters," we took our seats at a small round table in a trailer that serves as the prison visiting room. Two guards, one of them an English speaker, stood by, ready to catch our every word. We were forbidden to touch our son, let alone discuss with him the circumstances that had made him a security prisoner.

Nevertheless, we were allowed to show Mordechai the books we had brought him from supporters in New Zealand and an inscribed volume from Howard Zinn, the historian and political activist, before the guards took them away for inspection. Other gifts had been taken from us earlier for inspection and subsequent delivery to the prisoner.

We talked about the prison's renewal of censorship and lengthy processing of his outgoing mail, sometimes delayed for up to four or five months. These new measures have been introduced by a new prison commander, Yakov Alone, an army officer who never talks to Mordechai or even acknowledges his presence. Under the new regime, Mordechai has occasionally been punished by isolation in his cell for minor rule infractions.

We talked about a former prisoner, now paroled, who had befriended Mordechai in defiance of the prison rules. We told Mordechai that the former prisoner had spoken to us about the solitary confinement conditions Mordechai had endured for more than 11 years. When Mordechai started to respond a guard stopped him, saying it was forbidden to "talk about the past." Mordechai has no inmate friends now.

We talked about Yossi Katz, a Knesset member who visited Mordechai last spring and told him a release might be arranged if he would recant and repent of his action in going public with the story of Israel's secret nuclear weapons program. Mordechai reiterated his refusal to apologize and also disputed Katz's report that he receives two thousand letters a month. He said the total is more like one hundred, all of which he appreciates.

Mordechai's face lit up when we told him of a meeting held by his supporters at the Knesset the previous day and of plans for a large anti-nuclear protest rally the following day near the Dimona nuclear weapons reactor, where he had worked for nine years before blowing the whistle on the weapons program. He again expressed his hope that there would soon be civil disobedience at Dimona.

We talked about food. Mordechai has given up eating eggs, which are offered twice a day, and has developed a craving for chocolate, which he buys at the canteen.

We talked about the future. We renewed our offer to let him live in our home in Minnesota. He said he is thinking of settling eventually in Washington, DC.

When the visiting time expired the three of us and a guard walked down the prison street toward the first of two steel doors. On past occasions our son had walked us to the door, but this time he had to stop at a red line painted across the street half way to the door. It was a line painted just for him.

As we took our sad farewells at the red line, the prisoner's last words were thanks for the support that comes from around the world and a hope that the letters will increase. And as we passed through the gates of Ashkelon prison our thoughts were the same as before: Why is this good man still in prison, and when will the system repent and let him go free? This is our prayer.