PREAMBLE: In the late summer of 1986, Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli citizen, gave evidence to the London Sunday Times that Israel was developing nuclear weapons. Vanunu had discovered this while he was employed at the Dimona Nuclear Power Plant in the Negev Desert and, in an act of conscience, decided that the world should know. While in London, Vanunu was lured by a Mossad agent to Italy. On 30 September, while in Rome, he was drugged, kidnapped and transported to Israel. There, in the Jerusalem District Court, he was convicted of treason and sentenced to 18 years in Askelon prison. He spent the first eleven-and-a-half years in solitary confinement.
27 April 2004
As dusk fell over Jerusalem, two coaches carrying some 70 members of the International Vanunu delegation, together with Israeli campaigners, pulled up outside the Anglican Cathedral and Pilgrims Hostel of St George’s. This was where Mordechai Vananu was staying as a guest of Bishop Riah Abu el Assal, the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem.Passing through a barrage of reporters and photographers, the delegation1 – of which I was a member – made its way, one by one, through the entrance gates, heavily reinforced with security guards, into the hostel and main reception area.
Only on the journey from Jaffa (located south of Tel Aviv) had we been told of our destination. Our meeting with Mordechai, whose release we had witnessed only hours before, and which had been in so much in doubt for the past two days, was about to happen. It was like walking from a dream into reality.
Earlier that Wednesday morning, 21 April, the man who had been silenced for 18 years wasted no time on his release in giving an impromptu press conference to the Israeli media inside the gates of Shikma prison in Askelon. Forbidden contact with foreign journalists, Vanunu refused to speak in Hebrew, making his powerful statement in English, which was, in seconds, beamed around the world by the foreign press assembled outside the prison.
Only days before, Shin Bet security officials had visited Vanunu in his cell to tell him about the restrictions he would face on release. Based on the state of emergency laws passed in 1945 under the British Mandate, he would be allowed to choose his town of residence, but forbidden to leave its limits without reporting to the local police force. He could not leave the country, having been denied a passport and prohibited from approaching any border or port, the Ben Gurion international airport outside Tel Aviv, or any foreign embassies. Nor would he be permitted to divulge to anyone details about the Dimona plant where he had worked, or circumstances surrounding his kidnapping and transportation to Israel in 1986. Any contact with foreigners (including foreign citizens living in Israel), whether face to face, by fax, ’phone or email was prohibited.
The restrictions were to last six months and then be subject to review. Any violation could result in his arrest, trial and imprisonment.
On Vanunu’s instructions, the association for Civil Rights in Israel lodged an appeal, and the restrictions came in for sharp criticism in a public statement from NUJ General Secretary Jeremy Dear, and the International Federation of Journalists, whose General Secretary Aidan White called them ‘a grotesque and perverse legal device that flies in the face of democracy and natural justice.’ Amnesty International UK called on the authorities not to impose restrictions or conditions on Vanunu upon his release: ‘Vanunu should be allowed to exercise his rights of freedom of movement, association and expression in Israel and should be allowed to leave the country if he wishes.’
The restrictions were also criticised by some sections of the Israeli press, as was their author Yehiel Horev the defence minister, who is seen to have scored an ‘own goal’ for bringing undue international attention on the case. It was also reported that Ministry of Defence now holds all the materials written and collected by Vanunu during his 18 years in prison. This includes around 70 notebooks, diaries and over 2,400 letters sent by him to supporters and well-wishers. Legal steps for their return are being pursued.
By the time we arrived in Jerusalem, the restrictions on meeting foreigners had been relaxed (including the right for Vanunu to meet his US adoptive parents, Mary and Nick Eoloff). We waited in a corridor and were about to file into the reception room when Vanunu appeared at the rear of the queue. Spontaneous applause broke out and he then introduced himself to delegation members, hugging us and shaking hands. Later after his speech of welcome to us all, I finally had the opportunity to present Mordechai with his certificate of honorary membership of the NUJ and explained why we had made this presentation to him: his courage and bravery in speaking out, strength in surviving his prison ordeal.
I expressed the hope that he would accept our invitation to address next year’s ADM (Annual Delegate Meeting – union conference) in Scarborough. In reply, Vanunu said that it was a great honour to receive the award and welcomed the invitation. He explained why he had spoken out against Israel’s nuclear weapons and would continue to campaign against all nuclear weapons. He hoped very much to come to London as soon as possible and be able to speak freely without restrictions.
The meeting was an emotional occasion. It was one of the unique moments in history. The memories will remain for the rest of my life. Here was a man whose spirit and determination remained unbowed and unbroken.
Now aged nearly 50, he has to start his life over again. He plans a book, maybe even a film of his struggle. Certainly Peter Hounam, the Sunday Times journalist who broke the story in 1986, is anxious that the ban on foreign journalists is lifted.
But it is his safety that is of chief concern. Whilst he remains in Israel his life is in danger. Our priority is to secure his immediate release from Israel. There is still much to do for Mordechai Vanunu.
1. Note on the International Delegation:
By far the largest part of the International Delegation came from the United Kingdom, they included the late Susannah York; peace campaigners Pat Arrowsmith and Bruce Kent; fellow NUJ member and former Deputy General Secretary Jacob Ecclestone; Ben Birnberg, a British Jewish human rights lawyer; MPs Colin Breed (Lib Dem Cornwall South East) Jeremy Corbyn (Labour Islington North); and Mairead Maguire founder of the Peace People in Belfast. The second largest group came from the US, and there were two delegates from Hiroshima in Japan.