Snatched ... just like
May 30 2004
When Israeli security struck after the Vanunu interview, Peter Hounam got a short, terrifying taste of what his subject had been through.
It was meant to be a relaxed evening at a small fish restaurant near the Tel Aviv beachfront with Yael Lotan, the Israeli journalist who had interviewed Mordechai Vanunu. I drove there from Jerusalem and headed into the suburb of Givatayim to pick Yael up.
In Katznelson Street, close to her apartment, a small white car pulled out of a parking space and blocked my path. Another blocked the rear.
My door was wrenched open, an arm reached across and turned off the ignition, and a tough looking man wearing a police cap pulled me out of my seat into the road.
"You are under arrest," he said. "Please do not resist. We are police. Go over to the pavement."
For weeks I had prepared myself for trouble with Israel's feared security apparatus. My relationship with Vanunu was of great concern to Shin Beth, the internal secret service. As I watched plainclothes officers remove my two bags, containing tapes, notebooks and my laptop, I realised I was in for a rough time. At all cost I had to make sure Mordechai would not be placed in jeopardy in the forthcoming interrogation.
I was pushed into the back of a Toyota and told I was being taken to my hotel in Jerusalem and then to a police station.
The journey was hair-raising, the driver overtaking on the wrong side at 90 mph.
He was even trying to send a text message at high speed. He put the phone away when I shouted at him, and slowed down a little.
My fear now was that nobody would know I had been arrested. Yael would realise something was wrong, but I had to find a way of telling somebody quickly.
When we reached the Jerusalem hotel, in the Arab east part of the city, the restaurant tables outside were packed with diners. As I was escorted inside by officers in jeans and T-shirts, I saw Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International's Middle East representative. I rushed over and grabbed her arm.
"Tell The Sunday Times I have been arrested," I yelled as I was dragged away.
The police were furious. One said: "Mr. Hounam, that was not a very good idea. If we have more trouble, we will use handcuffs."
In my room a thorough search began. One of the policemen loaded all my papers into carrier bags. I asked if I could take a book or a newspaper with me. A cop looked at me menacingly and said: "Believe me, Mr. Hounam, where you are going, you will not have time to read a newspaper."
We returned to the car for the short journey to Jerusalem's central police station in the Russian compound, a huge complex of decrepit buildings built during the British mandate years.
I was escorted up some steps, along a corridor and into a room that was locked behind us. I realised this was the special police section, equivalent to Britain's Special Branch. Its role is to work with the secret service.
I watched as, one by one, my belongings were taken to an adjacent room. I could hear the police searching, and they got annoyed when I poked my head round the door. "Sit down, Mr. Hounam," one said quietly. "We will deal with you shortly."
I surprised myself that I was so calm. I had time to reflect that I had been expecting something like this to happen ever since 1986, when I first went to Israel after Vanunu's disappearance. He had been jailed for 18 years for the most serious of offences, aggravated espionage and treason, and I was his accomplice as the reporter who put his story in The Sunday Times. Yet nothing had happened to me in dozens of visits over the years, until now.
After waiting for more than an hour, I was eventually told to stand up and hold out my hands. Handcuffs were slammed on my wrists. Feeling like a dangerous criminal, I was marched out of the building and into the car for a short ride through an arch into another part of the complex.
At a sordid glass booth with two guards inside, I was told to stand in front of a home video camera. "Look straight at it," barked a tall guard who came up beside me, the first to show real aggression.
Into a bag went my wallet, comb, pen, watch and belt. A guard pointed to my shoes and off came my shoelaces. After a phone call to higher authority, I was allowed to keep my glasses.
Another guard, smiling in a rather apologetic way, led me along another corridor, through a locked door and into a tiny waiting area. The next step was completely unexpected. He opened a cupboard and took out a battered pair of scuba-diving goggles. The glass lenses had been removed and replaced by black plastic. These were put over my eyes and I entered total darkness.
With one guard tugging and another pushing, I was shuffled along a network of corridors. Doors were unlocked and I was pushed through.
"Take it off please," said a voice.
What a contrast. I was in a beautifully furnished office, with concealed lighting, two flat screen computer terminals and two elegantly curved desks, devoid of any paperwork. Sitting behind them were two of the men I had seen in my hotel room.
"Sit down please, Mr. Hounam," said one. "Do you know why you are here?" I said it was probably to do with Mordechai Vanunu.
"Of course, you are right," he said. "You are no longer in a police station, you are in the hands of Shabak, also known as Shin Beth. We call it the Internal Security Service. You have been arrested for 24 hours but we can continue to keep you by going to court. You will not be able to see a lawyer for four days. That is the rule."
He went on: "Of course, you know it is about Vanunu, but you must also know that we are looking into an interview we believe you arranged with him for the BBC. We want to know why you did this. In fact, we want to know everything you have been doing recently."
No surprise there. When I came to Israel last month to report Vanunu's release for The Sunday Times I was also helping make a BBC documentary about him. My aim in the weeks after his release was to get an exclusive interview with him for this newspaper and film it for the BBC. Restrictions imposed by the ever-obsessive security authorities banned him from speaking to foreigners but permitted him to be interviewed by any Israeli.
I was of the firm belief, as was Vanunu, that an interview would help to highlight the ridiculousness of the restrictions, and show those in the Israeli government who had displayed a degree of common sense about the issue - notably the attorney-general, Menahem Mazuz - that they were pointless and repressive.
With this in mind, the interview took place last weekend in St. George's Cathedral, Jerusalem, where Vanunu has been staying since his release. Yael Lotan conducted it with an Israeli film crew. I sat well out of the way, as did the BBC producer, Chris Mitchell. The essential rule was that neither of us must communicate with Vanunu.
There was a hitch, however. Preparing to fly home last Sunday, Mitchell was stopped at Tel Aviv airport. All the video cassettes were seized, and his mobile phone.
A further worrying development happened on the morning of my arrest. Outside St. George's Cathedral I bumped into the man editing the BBC documentary, Saadi Haeri. He was clearly in Israel incognito, perhaps to help take out duplicate copies of the interview. He followed me into a nearby hotel and we exchanged a few words. I had in my pocket a single video cassette of an interview with Vanunu's brother, Meir, and I gave it to him. We then parted.
As the Shin Beth interrogators took it in turns to grill me, it became clear that Saadi had been picked up and forced to give up at least some video cassettes. A massive surveillance operation had been conducted and they believed I had other cassettes, or knew where they were.
The lead interrogator was tall, tough and middle-aged with receding grey hair. He told me to call him Ifftakh, clearly not his real name. He was not friendly.
"Mr. Hounam," he said. "We know you are lying to us. We know you can lead us to more tapes. We know you have been hiding tapes. You will remain here until you tell us where they are."
Needing more time to think, I asked to take a lavatory break. On went the goggles and I was shuffled away. With the goggles removed I found myself staring at a filthy hole in the ground. The walls were grimy and covered in graffiti.
Back in the interrogation room the relentless questioning continued. I told them they had made a huge error, one of many that simply served to highlight the travesty of Vanunu's treatment.
I rather foolishly said: "You know, you should keep me for several days, because the story is only going to get bigger every day. I am not a helpless Palestinian with no friends in the outside world. The Sunday Times will be in action, so will the British government (I hoped). It will be a story all over the world."
They both got really angry.
"Are you threatening us?" they yelled. It was such an absurd response that I could only laugh.
"Why don't we all go home?" I said. One of them did just that, leaving Ifftakh to try to break me.
It was about 3 am. By now I was taking frequent lavatory breaks, using the time as I shuffled around blindly to gather my thoughts.
It was then that I realised my captors had made a stupid but understandable mistake. During the questioning, it emerged that on the tapes seized from Mitchell they had noticed a break in the recording at a point where Vanunu had spoken briefly, but legally, about his work at the Dimona nuclear weapons plant.
The Shabak had jumped to the conclusion that there was a missing section of the interview, no doubt packed with secrets.
Putting two and two together and making five, Shabak had deduced that Hounam had the missing tape. I had been seen handing Saadi a tape but this had proved to be the wrong one. So where was the real one?
I could easily prove they were wrong. In the bags they had seized from me were two audio cassettes of the interview. I scornfully pointed out to Ifftakh that by comparing this soundtrack with the videos he could hear there was nothing missing.
You could see the penny dropping when I explained that the discontinuity in the video was because the crew had stopped recording when Vanunu began to talk about visiting a sensitive room at Dimona. The tapes had been wound back and the offending section recorded over.
The mood eased. Ifftakh began asking if I could recommend any good restaurants in London. He said he would retire soon and write a book about his experiences in Shabak.
"Why not do it now? I could get a lot of money from The Sunday Times," I joked.
Ifftakh was getting tired. It was 4:40 am but I was happy to go on. In a way I had begun to like him. "You seem a nice guy," I said. "How can you do such a dreadful job?"
"Sometimes we have to do things we don't like," he replied, almost ruefully. "We'll continue tomorrow morning."
On went the goggles again and I was shuffled away. When they were removed I was pushed gently into a cell, part of a warren of squalid dungeons. There was a lavatory hole in one corner and a sink that emptied into it, a crude form of flush. Previous occupants had scrawled on the walls with whatever came to hand, including blood, faeces, yoghurt and semen.
There were blankets and two foam mats on the floor, no windows, but two bright lights burnt continually. This was my bleakest moment. Was I right to hope this might be over in just a day or two? I lay down and pulled a few blankets over me.
I was completely unconscious when at 6 am I was aroused by a guard. Breakfast came: a small plastic bag containing a boiled egg, four baby tomatoes like they sell at Sainsbury's, four slices of inedible bread and a small pot of yoghurt. I had the egg and tomatoes.
Until late in the morning I had nothing to do but to sit and reflect. I'm in solitary confinement, I thought, just like Mordechai. But he was caged like this for 11½ years. My solitude only lasted for five hours. Yet in no time I was bored, nothing to read and dark walls and filth all around me.
At about 11:30 am the goggles came back on and I was pushed along to another room, this time tiny and shabby. Sitting behind a desk, wearing a skullcap, was Sergeant David Nitzan, who said he was there to take a statement from me on Shabak's behalf.
He wrote down that I was suspected of "spying on Israeli nuclear secrets, and also serious spying on Israeli nuclear secrets". This sounded serious, the equivalent of the "aggravated espionage" that earned Vanunu his sentence.
Nitzan, however, turned out to be a cheery chap as he wrote answers to a series of questions that the Shabak had given him. At the end, I had to remind him that he hadn't asked me about the missing tape. He was grateful and I duly dictated a denial that one existed.
At around 3 pm one of my interrogators popped his head round the door and, looking rather sheepish, said the British consulate had come to see me. In came Valentine Madoojemu, vice-consul, and Sam Bayyuk, pro-consul. They said that the British ambassador had been furious and had insisted on consular access after it had been initially denied. The Israeli press had also gone berserk on the story, accusing Shabak of making a huge mistake.
My description of my filthy cell was so graphic that the vice-consul promised to insist on better conditions. An hour later I was shifted to an almost identical cell with less muck on the walls. A nice guard brought me a bucket of soapy water and a squeegee and politely suggested I wash the floor. I was also brought a towel and prison issue socks, vest and underpants, all ludicrously too small.
Now Avigdor Feldman and Mikhal Sfard, two of Vanunu's lawyers, arrived. They had moved mountains to overturn the ban on my seeing them. Beaming, they explained that the Ministry of Justice had been hugely embarrassed by my arrest and wanted a way out. There was no question of deportation. I was simply asked if I was willing to leave the country in 24 hours. I agreed, as I had been intending to leave by today anyway.
The Shabak agreed to return all my seized belongings once they had been checked; but my belt, shoelaces, watch, wallet and other bits and pieces were restored straight away. At 8 pm I walked out of the jail a free man. I was no longer a "serious spy".