Vanunu -- Israel's whistleblowing political prisoner

September 1, 2013

In 1986, Israeli scientist Mordechai Vanunu took a courageous moral stand against nuclear weapons.

Vanunu exposed Israel’s secret nuclear weapons arsenal to the world after becoming disillusioned with his work as a technician at Dimona Nuclear Research Centre in Israel.

Vanunu revealed Israel had hundreds of advanced nuclear warheads ― the sixth largest stockpile in the world. Under a policy of nuclear ambiguity, Israel still officially denies it has nuclear weapons, despite Vanunu’s revelations and other widespread evidence to the contrary.

Vananu's actions led to him being kidnapped by Israeli Mossad agents in Italy. Back in Israel, Vanunu was charged with espionage and treason and convicted in a secret trial. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Vanunu’s abduction was a violation of Italian and international law. According to article nine of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, no person shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention, including abduction of a person by agents of one state to another one.

For this “crime” he spent 18 years in jail. More than 11 years of his sentence was spent in solitary confinement in a six-metre-square cell under constant camera observation.

Still not free

Vanunu was released from prison in 2004. At a press conference after his release, Vanunu said Israel’s Mossad spy agency and Shin Bet secret service tried to rob him of his sanity by keeping him in solitary for so long. “You didn’t succeed to break me, you didn’t succeed to make me crazy,” Vanunu said.

Vanunu also called for Israel’s nuclear disarmament and for its dismantling as a Jewish state.

Although out of jail, Vanunu is still not free. Israeli authorities imposed a strict military supervision order on him, with several prohibitions.

Under the order, Vanunu is banned from meeting journalists, contacting supporters or foreigners without permission. He cannot use mobile phones, and his telephone and internet is monitored. He cannot move without permission.

Vanunu is subject to continuous police surveillance. His internal movements are confined to Jerusalem and he is forbidden to leave Israel. These curbs are renewed every 12 months.

Amnesty has said that, as Vanunu has served his full sentence, these limitations are a breach of international law. Vanunu has been re-arrested, put under house arrest, given community sentence and his residence searched several times since 2004 for breaching these rigid regulations.

In mid-2010, Vanunu spent a further three months in jail, in solitary confinement, in central Israel.

He had been sentenced to serve more time for unauthorised meetings with his Norwegian girlfriend and journalists, and for travelling to Bethlehem to attend Christmas Eve mass.

Since his release, Vanunu has repeatedly challenged the Israeli ban stopping him travelling overseas. These attempts to leave Israel have now dragged on for over nine years, without success.

Amnesty said: “Israel is bound by international law not to impose arbitrary restrictions on Mordechai Vanunu, including on his right to travel within the country or abroad, his right to peaceful association with others and his right to express his opinions.”

International support

Many groups and individuals have supported Vanunu’s just struggle to be free, including former Anglican archbishop and leading anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu, linguist and writer Noam Chomsky, Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, Irish peace activist Mairead Maguire, artist Yoko Ono and the late playwright Harold Pinter.

Amnesty has declared Vanunu a prisoner of conscience and has continually called for his immediate and unconditional release.

In 1999, 36 members of the US House of Representatives signed an appeal for the release of Vanunu, saying it was their duty “to mobilise for men and women like Mordechai Vanunu who dare to articulate a brighter vision for humanity”.

On April 20, supporters of Vanunu including former British government minister Tony Benn, and British MPs Jeremy Corbyn and Caroline Lucas released a statement saying: “Nine years ago, Mordechai Vanunu was released from Ashkelon prison in Israel. He had served the full 18 years of this sentence ― including over 11 years in solitary confinement ― for blowing the whistle on Israel’s secret possession and manufacture of nuclear weapons.

“But he is still not free: during these past nine years he has continued to be imprisoned in Israel by draconian restrictions which prevent him from leaving the country ― restrictions which also limit his freedom of speech and movement within Israel.

“He has been subjected to harassment and intimidation by Israeli authorities, including a further period of imprisonment for breaching his restrictions by talking to foreigners.

“So Mordechai has now suffered 27 years loss of freedom for his service to the truth. These restrictions must be lifted so he can at last be free.”

Vanunu remains a political prisoner, still being held in captivity and under constant risk of further detention in prison. He has served his prison time and is entitled to a life free of Israel’s repressive rules.

In July 2011, Vanunu petitioned the Israeli High Court requesting that the Interior Minister Eli Yishai immediately revoke his Israeli citizenship.

In a statement to the High Court, Vanunu said: “I request that you set me free of Israel, since Israel does not want me nor do I want Israel.”

In 1998, while still in prison, he filed a similar petition to the High Court asking for his citizenship to be revoked in 1998. The interior minister denied Vanunu’s request on the grounds that he did not have another citizenship.

However, the Israeli Citizenship Revocation Law passed in March 2011 enables courts to revoke the citizenship of those convicted of crimes against the state, including treason. Vanunu’s lawyer, Avigdor Feldman, said in the High Court petition that Vanunu should therefore now be permitted to renounce his citizenship.

Hounded by media

Feldman said Vanunu is not able to “find his place in Israeli society” because he is hounded by the media and by the public, who still refer to him as the “nuclear spy” although he has served his prison sentence.

Vanunu’s High Court petition follows a letter he wrote to in May, in which he told the interior minister he no longer wanted to live in Israel. “I request that you set me free of Israel, since Israel does not want me nor do I want Israel,” he wrote.

In June last year, the Israeli High Court denied Vanunu’s petition to renounce his citizenship, saying his application had not been submitted according to the prescribed procedure.

The Israeli government has always denied Vanunu’s requests to leave the country, on the grounds that he might reveal additional state secrets. Vanunu has repeatedly said he revealed all the information he had in 1986 and that he has no further information.

Scientists say the Israeli claims that Vanunu has any more secret details to reveal are ridiculous and this is merely a pretext for continuing to punish him.

Vanunu remains committed to human rights, disarmament and anti-nuclear campaigns. He has expressed the desire to travel to the US upon his release to be with his adoptive parents and recover from the physical and psychological strain of 18 years in prison, most of it in solitary confinement.

Israeli officials contend that restricting Vanunu’s freedom upon his release is necessary to prevent him from divulging further secrets about Israel’s nuclear arsenal. But after almost 28 years, Vanunu has no secrets or information left that could damage Israel’s nuclear program or any other Israeli military or government secrets.

What Israel fears is bad publicity if Vanunu were set free of its draconian measures. It wishes to make an example of him to deter others from pursuing similar actions.

On May 28, Vanunu posted this message to supporters about his situation: “The new interior minister renew the restrictions, not to leave the country, for one more year. Now the 10th year since my release, 2004-2014.

“So as I said before, Israel with 200 atomic weapons, hydrogen, neutron bombs, the only thing they can do is to arrest Vanunu, 1986-2013. This is a real bullshit state.

“Freedom now. I am now visiting with foreigners. I am ready to meet anyone who is coming here.”

Israel continues to show a blatant contempt for Vanunu’s civil and human rights and to continue to vindictively punish him for his past revelations.

Vanunu is part of a proud tradition of whistleblowers now being continued by the likes of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. We must not forget Vanunu, who after nearly 28 years is still suffering cruel treatment in Israel for his brave actions in exposing its nuclear stockpile.

Vanunu’s plight needs to be publicised and concerned people must support him. Vanunu is a principled man and a political prisoner, still being denied his democratic rights to freedom.

[For more information and for ways to support Vanunu, visit . To contact Vanunu, email .]

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