Mordechai Vanunu has spent the past 17 years in an Israeli prison. His crime? Blowing the whistle on Israel's "secret" nuclear arsenal
Vanunu worked as a technician at the Dimona nuclear weapons facility in the Negev Desert. In 1986, as an act of conscience, he gave his information, including inside photos, to the London Sunday Times. He believed that in a democracy, people have the right to know what their government is doing, especially regarding matters as important as nuclear weapons. While waiting for the Sunday Times to verify his information before publication, he was lured from London to Rome, where he was kidnapped by Mossad agents. Drugged, chained, and taken to Israel for a secret trial, Vanunu was convicted of treason and espionage and sentenced to 18 years in prison.
For the first 11 1/2 years, the Israeli government kept Vanunu in solitary confinement in a 6 x 9 foot cell, with very little human contact -- conditions Amnesty International called "cruel, inhuman and degrading." Still today he is held under very restrictive conditions at Ashkelon Prison: no phone access; his outgoing mail is censored and held for months; he is allowed infrequent visits only with immediate family, clergy, and his lawyer. Even though he gave all of the information he had to the Sunday Times in 1986 -- information that is now 17 years old -- the Israeli government has repeatedly refused to grant him pardon or parole, claiming that he still poses a security risk to the state of Israel.
Yet the end of his sentence is near; his release date is set for April 22, 2004.
Media attention and interest around the world is growing as the date for his freedom approaches. The most significant of these is a BBC documentary, Israel's Secret Weapon, which was first broadcast in March 2003. The film tells the story of Mordechai Vanunu and Israel's nuclear arsenal. It has since been shown across the world, and in June its rebroadcast caused the Israeli government to officially sever ties with the BBC. Another documentary will appear on the Canadian History Channel in February or March.
Public awareness and interest is also on the rise. On September 30, the 17th anniversary of his kidnapping and imprisonment, vigils calling for his freedom were held at Israeli embassies, consulates, and other locations in more than 20 cities around the world, including Toronto and Vancouver.
These coming months are crucial ones. As the international campaign continues to work for Vanunu's immediate freedom, and to raise the issue of nuclear disarmament for which he has suffered so much, attention is also being given to the practical matters of securing Vanunu's passport, helping him to leave Israel, and immigration issues.
An international delegation is being organized to be at Ashkelon Prison in April 2004 to welcome Mordechai out of prison and celebrate his release. The delegation will include supporters representing as many countries as possible, including celebrities and nuclear disarmament activists. (If you are interested in participating in the international delegation, please contact the US Campaign to Free Mordechai Vanunu for more information.) While it is hoped that Israel will do the right thing in April and release Mordechai Vanunu without condition or restriction, the international campaign has discussed and prepared for a wide range of possible scenarios.
Nick and Mary Eoloff, an American couple from Minnesota who adopted Mordechai as their son in 1997, traveled to Israel to visit him in mid-November. They report that he is in good spirits, very much looking forward to the end of his long ordeal, and expressing hopes for his future -- coming to live in the United States, becoming a history teacher.
With world attention focused now on alleged nuclear weapons in Iran and North Korea, it is not hard to imagine the reception an Iranian or North Korean whistleblower would receive, were one to take the risk and reveal information about their own country's secret nuclear arsenal. That person would be regarded as a courageous hero. There are thousands around the world, including prominent leaders such as Nobel Peace Laureates Joseph Rotblat and Mairead Maguire, who view Vanunu's act as courageous and heroic, and who continue to call for his immediate and unconditional release from prison.