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Let Vanunu Go Free

Vanunu interview, Sunday Times (London)
30 May 04

The details of the kidnapping and capture of Mordechai Vanunu in 1986 by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, read more than ever like spy fiction.

Mr. Vanunu, a former technician at Israel's Dimona nuclear centre, was in the process of revealing the secrets of his country's nuclear weapons programme to The Sunday Times when he was lured from London to Rome by "Cindy", an attractive blonde "American" working for Mossad.

The honey trap was sprung and the courageous whistleblower was not to taste freedom for 18 long years.

Now we at last know the details of Mr. Vanunu's abduction, they reveal the brutality with which he was treated. Once delivered by Cindy into the hands of Israeli goons, he was beaten and drugged repeatedly, well beyond the point where it became dangerous. His hands and feet were chained on the journey by ship to Israel. His arrest was kept secret from the outside world.

That was just a foretaste of things to come. For 11 years of the 18 he spent in Israel's Ashkelon prison, he was held in solitary confinement for no seemingly good reason.

Few of us can comprehend what 11 years alone in a cell measuring three metres by two could have been like. His own despairing descriptions, "You had nothing to do . . . you cannot go anywhere; you cannot come back", probably do not do it full justice. For two years the lights were kept on all day and all night, a camera monitoring his every movement. Even after that, guards would visit his cell every half-hour, keeping him awake so that he was driven to exhausted despair.

The aim was clear. The Israeli authorities wanted to break him; they regarded him as an enemy of the state and believed (wrongly) that he had more secrets to reveal.

He was, to his great credit, too strong to be broken.

But Israel's paranoia has persisted, as we have seen from the absurdly restrictive terms of his release. He is out of prison but far from free, prohibited from going near airports, ports or foreign embassies. His telephone is tapped and he must seek permission before any contact with foreigners, whether journalists or not.

According to Joseph Lapid, Israel's deputy prime minister, he remains a danger. "We think he still knows secrets and we don't want him to sell them again," he said this weekend. "We think there are things he knows that he hasn't divulged yet. He may do so - he's hell-bent to harm this country, he hates this country."

This is nonsense. Mr. Vanunu did not wish to harm Israel. He wanted to prevent a nuclear holocaust in which he feared that Israel could be destroyed.

And he has no more secrets. "I did what I did and it ended with the Sunday Times article (in 1986). Since it was published there are no more secrets. Much more important, it is 18 years since that happened. What Israel has been doing for the last 18 years is its problem, not mine," he says in his interview in News Review today.

Israel will never accept that Mr. Vanunu did the world a favour by revealing the scale of Israel's nuclear programme. Instead what we are witnessing from the country's government is vindictiveness and unjustified paranoia.

That suspicion extends to those who have contact with him. Last week Peter Hounam, a journalist for this newspaper, was seized by Shin Beth, the country's internal secret service, interrogated and held for 24 hours. This time they were in pursuit of what they believed to be a missing tape of an interview with Mr. Vanunu. There was, of course, no missing tape.

Mr. Hounam is now back in London, shaken but little the worse for wear.

Mr. Vanunu remains in Israel, bound by the terms of his release. He would like to leave for Europe or America to start a family and embark on a new career, possibly teaching.

He does not intend to campaign against Israel or become a focus for anti-Israeli protest. But as long as he is forced to remain in Israel, his supporters will continue to protest and seek to embarrass the government.

He has served his sentence. He should be allowed to enjoy genuine freedom. Israel has nothing to lose by it and much to gain by showing magnanimity.


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