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British journalist Peter Hounam released from detention

By Yossi Melman, Yuval Yoaz and Anat Balint, Haaretz Correspondents
Haaretz
Service and Agencies
May 27, 2004

British journalist Peter Hounam, who broke nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu's account of the Dimona atomic program in 1980s, was released from detention Thursday evening.

Hounam was arrested by the Shin Bet on Wednesday evening for allegedly making contact with Vanunu, it was released for publication Thursday.

Attorney General Menachem Mazuz ordered Hounam's release, following a meeting between officials from the Shin Bet security service and representatives of the Justice Ministry.

Legal sources told Haaretz Thursday, that there was a misunderstanding between the Shin Bet over the circumstances of Hounam's arrest. Hounam is covering the Vanunu story and considered one of his closest friends.

The Shin Bet was scheduled to hold a briefing with foreign correspondents Thursday evening in a Tel Aviv hotel, in order to give its version of events.

Hounam is expected to leave Israel some time Friday, Channel Two television reported Thursday night.

Security sources said the object of the investigation was to ascertain whether Hounam had any cassette recordings of an interview Vanunu gave Saturday to Yael Lotan, an activist in a committee that worked towards Vanunu's release and against Israel's nuclear program, which was to appear this weekend in the British newspaper the Sunday Times.

Hounam and Lotan were scheduled to meet in Ramat Gan late Wednesday. When he failed to arrive at the meeting, Lotan discovered that Hounam was under arrest.

Judicial sources told Haaretz earlier Thursday that the Shin Bet did not coordinate the arrest, and that "developments" in the affair were expected

It was revealed Thursday that the Shin Bet detained BBC reporter Chris Mitchell at Ben-Gurion Airport on Sunday, and confiscated tapes at his possession. Mitchell is preparing a documentary on Vanunu, and was arrested a day after Lotan interviewed Vanunu. A BBC technician was arrested Wednesday and released Thursday, it was also revealed. The BBC has not yet given its response to these findings.

British Ambassador to Israel Simon McDonald has voiced concern to Israeli authorities over the Shin Bet seizure of Hounam. He spoke Thursday to Justice Minister Yosef Lapid and asked for clarifications on the arrest from the Israeli Foreign Ministry and Police. He also demanded a consular visit to Hounam in custody.

Hounam has been covering the Vanunu affair for years and is considered to be one of the closest people to the nuclear whistle blower. He interviewed Vanunu some 20 years ago for the Sunday Times, in which the affair first appeared.

The Foreign Journalists' Association in Israel announced Thursday that it was amazed and deeply worried over the arrest of British journalist Peter Hounam by the Shin Bet security service a day earlier, and by the fact that he did not receive any legal assistance at the beginning of his detention.

The announcement added that Hounam's documentary film on Vanunu has not yet been aired, and therefore he had not violated censorship rules. The association demanded that Israel reveal the accusations against Hounam, and "provide him with his democratic rights."

Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said Thursday that he was unaware of the facts of the case, but said he believed that "there was a possible violation here of the legal restrictions placed on Vanunu."

MK Yossi Sarid (Yahad) said that he hoped that the Shin Bet had " particularly convincing reasons" for Hounam's arrest. "It is known that the sudden arrest of a journalist is unaccepted in a democratic state, and is hardly recognized in states such as North Korea and Burma," Sarid said Thursday.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel said Thursday that Hounam's arrest damaged journalistic freedom and placed Israel in "a shameful light."

Vanunu's brother Meir told Haaretz on Wednesday that he did not know whether Hounam had met with his brother since his release. "It is part of the ongoing persecution against my brother and the defense establishment's attempt to silence and terrorize him," Meir Vanunu added.

Army Radio reported Thursday afternoon that Hounam's attorney, Avigdor Feldman, will be allowed to meet with his client at 6 P.M.

According to Israel Radio, Feldman said earlier Thursday that he had been denied access his client, and had petitioned the Jerusalem District Court to overrule the ban. Feldman was quoted as saying that the prohibition, issued by the security forces, was for four days' duration.

Under conditions imposed on Vanunu with his release, he is not allowed to give interviews or meet with foreigners. Feldman, who also represents Vanunu, said Hounam had not violated any of the restrictions and called the arrest a farce.

"The man was arrested for no reason. He was arrested as part of the security establishment's never ending obsession with Vanunu," Feldman told Army Radio.

Danny Seaman, director of the Government Press Office, said that if Hounam was arrested it was for serious offenses. He noted that his office had issued Hounam press credentials two weeks ago without any problems.

"This is irregular and so I assume they did not arrest him as a journalist but because they have real reasons," Seaman told the radio. "The Shin Bet is a serious organization that deals with serious issues."

Witnesses said Hounam was concerned as Shin Bet agents took him away from his Jerusalem hotel.

"I was sitting in the garden when he was brought in by five plainclothes security men," said Donatella Rovera, a researcher with the human rights group Amnesty International, who was staying at the same hotel.

"As they were bringing him through the garden he broke away from them and came running to my table. He said 'I'm being arrested, tell the Sunday Times,"' she said, adding that he was immediately pulled away.

Sunday Times foreign editor Sean Ryan said Hounam, 60, had been in Israel since April 16 to cover Vanunu's release for the newspaper.

"We are trying to establish exactly what the situation is, where he is now and why he has been detained," Ryan said.

Since he completed his 18-year prison sentence for espionage earlier this year, Vanunu has been under a number of official restrictions, including a ban on speaking with foreign reporters on his former work as a nuclear technician in the Dimona nuclear reactor complex.

Steinitz said Thursday that "In general, the Shin Bet does not arrest people arbitrarily, but with considered judgement. I am not saying that the Shin Bet does not err at times, but it is generally a very responsible organization, and things like this are done after profound consideration."

"My assessment, and all of Mr. Hounam's past and present behavior suggests this, that it is possible that there was a possible violation of the legal restrictions placed on Vanunu."

BBC 'very concerned' over arrest

A British Foreign Office spokeswoman in London early Thursday said that U.K. officials were notified of the arrest, and that the British consulate in Israel was looking into the matter.

A BBC spokeswoman in London said the broadcaster was "very concerned" about Hounam's arrest.

The spokeswoman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, declined to answer any questions about Hounam, including where he was arrested and whether he had met with Vanunu since his release.

Hounam arrived in Israel more than a month ago, ahead of Vanunu's release. Vanunu was freed on April 21, after spending 18 years in jail for espionage and treason.

Hounam was a member of the original Sunday Times team that interviewed Vanunu and then published his story in 1986. He left the paper several years ago and became a freelance reporter and also published books and produced films.

Unlike the other members of the team, Hounam stayed in touch with Vanunu and was active in the public struggle for his release.

Hounam visited Israel frequently over the past few months, and has been staying in a hotel in East Jerusalem for the past 6 weeks. During his stay, he has reported to the Sunday Times on Vanunu's release and has been preparing a documentary on the affair for the BBC.

He has also been in close contact with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), which is working to file a petition against the restrictions imposed on Vanunu by the defense establishment since his release. Among others, Hounam was banned from meeting Vanunu, who has been living in a church in East Jerusalem since his release.

Hounam told Haaretz last week that he intended to return to Britain soon.


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