Josephine Siedlecka meets the Israeli nuclear whistleblower who may be sent back to prison for talking to the Press From 1976 to 1985 Mordechai Vanunu worked as a technician at the Negev Nuclear Research centre south of Dimona. Israel's secret nuclear installation. At that time Israel was insisting that it would not be the first nation to manufacture nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Yet Vanunu discovered that Israel had already developed an extensive nuclear programme and was hiding its existence from the Israeli people and the world.
In 1985 he was made redundant, The 30-year-old set out on a round-the-world journey that changed his life forever. He visited Nepal. Burma and Thailand before arriving in Australia, where he got some temporary work and began attending a local Anglican church.
'I'he vicar, the Rev John MacKnight, befriended him and in 1986 Vanunu decided to become a Christian and was baptised, as John Crossman. into the Anglican Church,
In his new church community Vanunu became involved in a group discussing justice and peace issues. While in Sydney he met Peter Hounam, a journalist from The Sunday Times in London. Vanunu was troubled by what he had seen at Dimona and decided to reveal Israel's nuclear secrets to the world.
"Israel was posing such a danger 1 felt it was my Christian duty to tell the world what was happening," he recalled.
htearly September 1986 he flew to London and, in viola tion of a non-disclosure , agreement that he had signed, he gave information and photos of what he had seen. The response from the Israeli government was swift.
Tracked down by agents of the Israeli secret service Mossad, Vanunu was targeted by a female officer in a honeyrmp. She began an affair with Vanunu and persuaded him to travel to Rome for a holiday. On Italian soil he was kidnapped, drugged and returned to Israel.
A closed court convicted him of treason and espionage and sentenced him to 18 years imprisonment. Vanunu served the first 12 years in solitary confinement (two years with the lights on 24 hours a day).
During his imprisonment Vanunu became a symbol for the peace movement. Church and peace groups amend the world mounted campaigns for his release and he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
On April 21, 2004, Vanunu was finally released from prison, but he remains under house arrest in the compound of St George's Anglican Cathedral in East Jerusalem. He is forbidden to speak to foreigners and journalists and is not allowed to leave Israel or go near a foreign embassy.
I met Vanunu at St George's earlier this month. I recognised him immediately the minute he put his head round the door of the refectory where I was eating lunch with a group of visitors from Britain. He joined us for coffee.
This man doesn't seem like someone who has been locked in a prison cell for 18 years. He looks fit. He has a kind face, a strong handshake and a calm and friendly manner. I asked him how he had coped with so many years in prison,
"My faith kept me going," he says. "Especially during the solitary col-Aimee-tent. I prayed a lot. One of my favourite prayers was St Paul's words: For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present or things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
In prison he exercised each
day. "Sometimes 1 exercised too much I think, because at times I felt very angry. I also used to read aloud in English and sing. I loved to listen to music, especially opera. I read many books and studied. I listened to news on the BBC World Service every day for 18 years, right the way through to the end of the Cold War.
For 12 years I was completely alone. Then they put me in with some other prisoners. They were really hard criminals who were trying to win favour from the guards and made my life difficult."
When Vierainu was finally released from prison, the main thing he needed was rest.
"They try to make you into an animal in prison," he said. "I needed to recover. It was wonderful to be out in the world to talk with people, to see friends. Simple things like eating ice cream."
Although Vanunu is out of prison his life is very restricted. "At first I was nervous about security. The media in Israel has been so hostile to me that many people hate me. But in this place and in this part ofJerusalem 1 am with friends. It is wonderful to be here and to have more freedom of movement. 1 read, listen to music and pray. I like to see friends and go for walks."
Ile keeps up with current affairs and remains concerned at recent events in Israel.
"It is so sad," he said. "Instead of building up people, building communities. Israel has built nuclear weapons.
"Now they are angry about Iran possibly developing nuclear weapons. Bur Iran is just following what Israel did years ago.
"I hope each time it's mentioned in the news, people remember that. I don't understand why Tony Blair doesn't say something about this. They speak about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and Iran but not a word about the ones Israel has."
Vanunu said he was sad dened by the separation wall that now encircles Bethlehem.
"When 1 saw it I was shocked. People should come and see for themselves and see how it violates the human rights of Palestinians on the West Bank. Then they should write to their MPs and ask them to intervene. It does not stop terror, it is designed to grab land and make people's lives more difficult, The Israelis ignored the International Court of Justice, which has called it illegal. Perhaps if Tony Blair said something they would respect his views."
We talked about the recent victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections. "Fatah were very corrupt," he explained. "I hope Israel will give Hamas a chance to get established," He also talked about the "Mohammed cartoons" which were recently reprinted in a Jerusalem journal. Vanunu believed this was a deliberate effort to provoke trouble, to destabilise the region "even before Hamas has their cabinet organised. I don't think they will succeed."
Last Christmas Eve Vanunu was arrested for trying to go to Bethlehem to attend Midnight Mass.
The authorities said that by making the trip (a 20-minute drive from St George's) he &was, "going out of Israel".
He has also been charged with talking to 21 foreign journalists. Vanunu has attended court several times in the last few weeks to face these charges. As The Catholic Herald went to press, the court was scheduled to reach its decision.
Vanunu's lawyer has defended him by saying that he should be allowed the lib
erty of free speech under the Israeli constitution. But Shula Davidovitch, press secretary of the Israeli Embassy in London, said this week: "Mordechai Vanunu violated the security of Israel by revealing these secrets. We believe he. still can endanger Israel by exposing more secrets that he has. 14c signed a security contract when he joined the company and broke that contract. lee got an exceptional punishment for an an exceptional crime. He has now violated the condition of his release. He has not said sorry. The court is taking his case very seriously."
Vanunu himself is no longer confident in Israeli justice.
"I am absolutely sure the judge will find me guilty," he told me. "They claim I still have nuclear secrets."
Yet he insists he is optimistic for the future, "1 stir vived imprisonment for 18 years. I will survive another two if I have to. When 1 am finally free I want to live abroad and continue to work for the abolition of nuclear weapons. I am looking forward to leading a normal life. Travelling to other parts of the world. Seeing the English countryside."
The Left wing peace organisation Pax Christi International has expressed grave concern at the latest indictment against Vanunu. In a statement to the UN Commission on Human Rights Pax Christi said: "Whatever one's opinion concerning the legality of Mr Vananu's original actions, it is clear that he has paid for them quite fully.
"It is also clear that much of his sentence was served under conditions that constitute psychological torture.
"Over the past year he has only repeated what has now become public knowledge, and no new or classified information is forthcoming. Alleged risks to Israeli national security are not justified or proportionate to these restrictions. Mr Vanunu should be permitted to speak freely according to his conscience about the dangers of nuclear proliferation. To limit this freedom constitutes a grievous violation of a basic right."
Bruce Kent, vice-chairman of Pax Christi, said this week: "It would do the reputation of Israel no end of good to release this man.
"After 18 years in prison he cannot possibly have any information that would be remotely useful. The industry has moved on. If Israel wants to show itself to be a modern and compassionate nation the Israelis should just let him go,"