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The Vanunu Affair: The Silence Ends

Yediot Ahronot
November 24, 1999
By Michal Goldberg

The information that nuclear spy Mordechai Vanunu revealed to the British newspaper Sunday Times, caused Israel real damage from the military and intelligence aspects. It constituted an unprecedented revelation of information, and marked the nuclear compound in Dimona as a military and intelligence target.

This arises from the protocol of the trial of the nuclear technician, parts of which are published here for the first time. In an unprecedented step, the State responded to a request by Yediot Ahronot and permitted the publication of parts of the protocol, material that amounts to about 1,200 pages. Among other things, the parts that were released contain the testimonies of Vanunu himself, of the Shin-Bet agents who interrogated him, of Sunday Times journalist Peter Hounam, and of former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who ordered that he be brought to Israel. Vanunu's trial was held entirely in camera at the District Court in Jerusalem, before Chief Justice Eliahu Noam and judges Zvi Tal and Shalom Brener.

From the protocols it arises, that in the course of the trial the prosecution made it clear, that there were grounds for sentencing Vanunu to death - but the prosecutor avoided announcing that he would demand such a penalty.

Vanunu Speaks for the First Time

"Those two minutes lasted a long time, and I started thinking about my life... Started to think about what might happen, about death... I mean, whether I came out of it alive or dead, wasn't important to them." That was how Mordechai Vanunu described in his testimony his feelings upon arriving in Israel. In his testimony he also described his interrogation by Shin-Bet agents and his life story: from the emigration from Morocco, through his relations with his family and his studies, to working in Dimona and his decision to expose Israel's secrets.

"I wanted to confirm what everybody knows... I wanted the matter to come under orderly supervision... Now Peres can no longer lie to Reagan and say that we don't have nuclear weapons, now everyone knows," Vanunu said that he told his mother.

The Journalist Testifies

"It was obvious to me that Vanunu was in danger," testified British journalist Peter Hounam, who published the Sunday Times expose. "I asked to have him transferred to a different hotel, but I found out that he was very nervous and he was talking about 'leaving London and the country.' He wanted to get out." Hounam testified that Vanunu was completely open in his talks with the newspaper, and did not try to conceal anything.

Mordechai's brother, Albert Vanunu, was summoned to testify for the defense. The purpose of the testimony was to prove, that the Mossad knew long before the publication, that Vanunu was about to give the material to Sunday Times reporters. In the course of the testimony, Albert spoke about the meetings he had with representatives of the Mossad. According to him, the latter told him that someone was trying to convince his brother to hand over information about the nuclear reactor, and they mentioned the "British press."

Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres stated during the trial, that in his view, the publication clearly harmed Israel. "It encouraged several Arab states to go in different directions, undesirable to the State," Peres said. Also questioned on the same subject was Abba Eban, who was then the chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee. "The publication lit a red light in hostile countries... Now [there is] certainly more supervision, suspicious supervision over Israel's sources of material."

The Testimony of the Shin-Bet Agents

The trial protocol also provides a peek at the operational methods of the Shin-Bet Interrogations Branch, through the testimonies of "Alon" and "Yehuda". The two men, who apparently are identified by means of pseudonyms, obtained Vanunu's version after he arrived in Israel. The interrogator "Yehuda" said that he spoke with Vanunu about the motive for revealing the nuclear secrets. "I said to him: 'You were prepared to sell out the State for £100,000?' And he said to me: '£100,000? There was just talk about 100,000 dollars.' He said that he wanted to expose the true face of Israel, an insane state."

From the protocols it arises, that the security staff of the Nuclear Research Facility in Dimona held three clarification talks with Mordechai Vanunu, before he ceased working there. The talks addresses information about Vanunu's meetings with minorities, as well as an interview that he gave to a student paper. In the third meeting Vanunu told the security agents: "Don't worry, I intend to leave soon, and then things will get quiet."

The Issue of Secrecy

In the course of the trial Mordechai Vanunu never stopped fighting for the hearings to be held in open court. The prosecution strongly opposed that, fearing that Vanunu would deliberately reveal to the public additional secret information, and thereby harm State security.

The parties raised various proposals for opening the hearings to the public. Among other things, the possibility was considered of Vanunu sitting in a room outside the court room, with the proceedings transferred to him by means of a closed circuit television. In addition, it was considered to seat Vanunu behind a transparent curtain. The prosecution opposed this proposal, fearing that Vanunu would be able to shout out his statements. Vanunu's lawyer ruled out the possibility that he be seated in another room, or sit in the courthouse wearing a gag.

Vanunu argued in court: "Up to now I attempted to publicize that I had been kidnapped. I have nothing more to say, because I was abroad and I told all of the secrets, and I no longer have any interest in revealing any secret or anything else. What happened up to now was about the kidnapping."

Vanunu's statements did not convince the Court to open the trial, as long as Vanunu was seated in the court room and was able to talk freely.

The Exposure

In a Rare Step, the State Granted the Request of Yediot Ahronot

At the request of Yediot Ahronot, the State Attorney's Office allowed for the first time the publication of more than 1,200 pages of protocols and testimonies from Vanunu's trial, the espionage trial that shook Israel and aroused considerable interest around the world.

At the time of the trial the proceedings were held in camera, under a heavy cloak of secrecy. Representatives of the media not only were banned from the court room, but were not even allowed to see the defendant. Since the "hand incident," in which Vanunu exposed the details of his kidnapping from Rome by writing on his hand and holding it up to a van window, he was brought to the court in a vehicle with covered windows, with his head covered by a motorcycle helmet or a blanket. When the Supreme Court turned down his appeal, it permitted the publication of part of the verdict, but even then the affair of the "atomic spy" remained shrouded by secrecy.

The change in the position of the security establishment concerning his exposure occurred recently and was expressed in removing him from solitary confinement and placing him in a cell along with another prisoner. In addition, the media was permitted to take new photographs of Vanunu.

About four months ago Yediot Ahronot, represented by attorney Tali Lieblich, petitioned the District Court in Jerusalem and requested permission to publicize the trial protocols. The State, represented by Adv. Dvora Chen, did not oppose the petition, but did request and obtain time to consider what would be permitted for publication. Two days ago the work of screening the protocols was completed, and many of them were permitted for publication, for the first time in an espionage and treason trial in Israel.

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