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The Weapons Inspector who found Nuclear Weapons

by Fredrik Heffermehl
IPS, Oslo, 30. September

Recent and gross failures in the search for weapons of mass destruction, should make us remember that there is a weapons inspector who actually found such weapons in the Middle East, a man named Mordechai Vanunu. He discovered and reported a clandestine nuclear weapons factory, but, instead of official recognition, it earned him almost 12 years of torture under solitary confinement. On Tuesday 30, 2003, he will have served 17 years of an 18 year prison sentence.

Vanunu´s misfortune was that he found the weapons in the wrong country - his own, namely Israel. While his country expected him to keep it as a secret, Vanunu had the opposite calling. He thought that a little group within the cabinet could not be entitled - in the name of national security - to start production of extinction machinery that put the survival of the nation, the region and the world at risk. What is democracy worth, Vanunu thought, if it is all right to hide so vital information from the public and exclude the most dangerous and consequential decisions from public discussion?

"If I do not tell the truth, who will?" Vanunu wrote to his brother, before he blew the whistle on Israel´s secret weapons by delivering a set of photos from the inside of Dimona, Israel´s bomb factory, where he had worked as a subordinate technician, to the Sunday Times. Even before the story was published, Mossad, the Israeli Secret Police, had set a honey trap and kidnapped him from London via Rome, back to Israel, where he was sentenced to 18 years imprisonment. Neither Britain nor Italy have ever protested this gross violation of their territorial sovereignty.

Vanunu was punished for Israel´s illegal actions. To remove all nuclear weapons has always been a central political ambition for the United Nations. In 1996 the World Court stated that nuclear weapons use would violate the laws of war and that states have a legally binding obigation to abolish them. The nuclear weapon states have frequently confirmed their obligations, under the 1968 treaty on non-proliferation and elimination of nuclear weapons, but just as consistently failed to act conformingly. In March this year the USA pointed to Iraq´s alleged stocks of weapons as a central justification for going to war, while at home pursuing intensive research and development of new nukes, in a nuclear arms race with itself.

Israel, acting in tandem with the mighty countries of this world, led by the USA, have sought to suppress, neglect and forget Vanunu´s information on the scope of Israel´s nuclear program.

It is hard to see how Vanunu´s revelation could harm Israel. The program was not a military secret in 1986. And presumably the weapons were not intended for surprise attack. If they were to function as a deterrrent, the neighbours had to know. Most probably the main reason why both Israel and the US pretend that there are no nuclear weapons, is a law that prevents the US government from supporting nations that violate the non-proliferation regime.

-- How could the Israeli court convict Vanunu as a spy and a traitor? He did not engage in subversive activities with an enemy, but went to the Israeli public, via the international press, and his goal was to have an open, public, and democratic discussion, says Felice Cohen-Joppa, a leader of the US Campaign to free Vanunu. Real spies normally do not spend much time in jail, but Vanunu never benefited from a swap with a counterpart of an enemy country. It was right of Vanunu to talk when the security of the Israelis was jeopardized by illegal actions of their own government, says Ms. Cohen-Joppa.

In a recent BBC documentary, "Israel´s Secret Weapon"- a film that incensed Israel to the point of breaking all contacts with the BBC - former Prime Minister Shimon Peres defends Israel´s government and its nuclear program as a precaution for survival. However, in later years the democratic debate that Vanunu sought has been realized in Israeli TV, newspapers and even in the Knesset, where a representative, Issam Makhoul, said the weapons did not bring security, but rather a risk of disappearing under a radioactive cloud.

In the BBC film, and also in a recent study by the Palestinian authority the aging and uninspected Dimona reactor is in great danger of a meltdown. After Vanunu no one has broken Israel´s taboo on nuclear issues in, and neither the dangerous Dimona plant nor the plight of many workers who are dead or suffering from radioactive disease, receive the necessary political and practical attention.

There has been international outrage over the almost 12 years of isolation in prison. Already in 1991 Amnesty International pointed out that Vanunu had suffered excessive cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, a clear violation of the international ban on torture, and that his release was long overdue. Hopes that he, according to common practice in Israel and other countries, would be released on parole after 12 years of good behaviour, were also disappointed.

Vanunu has probably paid a higher price than anyone else in the worldwide struggle against nuclear weapons, but he has never doubted that he did the right thing, say the only people who have been permitted to visit him in prison. The circle of visitors is strictly limited to his lawyer and close family, including an American couple, Dick and Mary Eoloff, who adopted Vanunu as their son some years back.

But thousands of people visit his cell every day in their thoughts and through a strong stream of letters, sent to Ashqelon prison, Ashqelon, Israel. Campaigns all over the world have worked for his release. He has received numerous prizes, ao. the Right Livelihood Award, is a Vice President of the International Peace Bureau in Geneva, and became honorary doctor of Tromsoe University in Norway two years back. Also this year the 30. September will see demonstrations in about 20 cities around the world calling for his release.

Unbelievably, after so many years in solitary confinement, Vanunu is still of sound mind. After 6 200 days under lock and key now "only" 210 days remain before the day Israel has set for his release, April 22, 2004. Judging from his frequent letters to supporters round the world and reports from the Eoloffs, his adoptive parents, Vanunu is in good spirits and looking forward with great excitement to start a new life abroad after his release.

-Fredrik S. Heffermehl

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