Prisoner of the state

11 April 2009

Mordechai Vanunu crosses a main road, then stops on a sunny but chilly spring day in Jerusalem while a hauntingly beautiful call beckons worshippers to prayer at the al Aqsa Mosque in the historic Old City. He glances around nervously, as if someone is watching, looks left and right, scanning faces in the stream of people moving in either direction, then points to a white taxi coming towards us.

"I was walking here this morning and a car drew slowly up alongside me," he says in broken English. "There were four men in the car wearing sunglasses. One of them shouted at me but I kept my head down and kept walking."

A short, lean man who stands out from the mainly Arab crowds on this busy thoroughfare, Vanunu sets off up the street again at a march, whispering to me as we walk and occasionally looking over his shoulder.

"The car followed me and I heard the man call out again in Hebrew. 'You are garbage,' he said. But I kept on walking and ignoring him."

The men were plain-clothed officers of the Shin Bet, Israel's internal security force. They followed Vanunu to the rundown hotel where he lives. As he was about to enter the foyer they leapt from the vehicle, flashed ID cards and ushered him into the back seat. Residents and traders, many of whom know the famous Israeli, stood and watched his public humiliation.

"They took me to the local station and warned me not to go to Bethlehem this year to celebrate Christmas. They said they'd be watching me and that I should also not speak to journalists or foreigners."

It is almost five years since we last met and Vanunu looks tanned and fit. He is 54 but does not seem to have aged. He looks as austere as before, with his chin held high and his eyebrows furrowed to give a stern countenance. As we speak, he stares over my shoulder at other patrons and the cafe entrance, only occasionally catching my eye.

He seems ill at ease. He reaches into his jacket pocket for the umpteenth time, bringing out another peanut, crushing the shell and putting the debris into a pile on the table. Is Bethlehem off the Christmas calendar then? "I would prefer to go to the airport," Vanunu replies, deadpan and without hint of humour.

For a fleeting moment, this man was one of the most famous in the world: Mordechai Vanunu, aka the Israeli nuclear whistleblower, the Jew turned Christian who caused a sensation when he informed the world in 1986 that his country was secretly building a nuclear arsenal.

His revelation, he says, was to prevent a nuclear holocaust in the Middle East, but in leaking Israel's national secrets he was branded a traitor by his country and later sentenced to 18 years in prison. To this day, Israel still refuses to confirm or deny possession of an atomic bomb.

Vanunu served the full sentence, spending 11 long years in solitary confinement. He became a symbolic figure for human rights activists who argued he had been persecuted for alerting the world to its growing nuclear stockpile in its most volatile region.

Released from prison on April 21, 2004, Vanunu flashed victory signs as he walked into the courtyard of Shikma Prison in Ashkelon. He told journalists he planned to move to the US to marry and to teach history and defiantly stated he had no regrets. "You didn't succeed to break me, you didn't succeed to make me crazy," he told Israel.

But as the fifth anniversary of Vanunu's release from prison approaches, he remains captive inside Israel. Under the ever watchful eye of the Shin Bet, his movements are restricted and the freedom he desperately craves is still on hold. Moreover, as the world forgets his plight, Vanunu fears he will soon be back in prison.

Vanunu was born in Marrakech, Morocco in 1954. His father was a rabbi and in 1963, when Mordechai was nine, the family emigrated to Israel, where he later served in the Israeli army and studied geography, philosophy, maths and physics. It was at university that Vanunu began to sympathise with Palestinians, questioning Judaism and Israeli politics and starting a student organisation promoting equal rights.

Despite his leftist politics he was cleared to work at a secret underground weapons facility at the Dimona nuclear plant in the Negev desert in southern Israel. From 1976 to 1985 he processed plutonium for nuclear bombs, but was alarmed when the facility started using Lithium Six, a chemical element used for hydrogen bombs.

"I was terrified at what Israel was capable of and felt that I had to prevent a nuclear holocaust in the Middle East. I took 60 pictures of the processing plant then I left Israel in 1986 and went to Australia," he says.

In Sydney he stayed at a Kings Cross hostel, working as a dishwasher and later as a taxi driver. He began attending St John's Church, Darlinghurst, where he met the Reverend John McKnight, who worked with the homeless and drug addicts. Vanunu converted to Christianity and was baptised into the Anglican Church. While in Sydney, he met Peter Hounam, a journalist with The Sunday Times newspaper in Britain.

In early September 1986, Vanunu flew to London with Hounam, and in violation of his non-disclosure agreement, revealed his knowledge of the Israeli nuclear program, including photographs he had secretly taken at the Dimona site.

Frustrated by the delay while the Sunday Times checked his astonishing claims, Vanunu approached the Sunday Mirror - a disastrous move given the subsequent allegation that Robert Maxwell, the Jewish owner of the London tabloid, tipped off Mossad that the Dimona technician was in town.

On September 30, 1986, Vanunu was lured to Rome by a femme fatale called Cindy, who turned out to be an Israeli secret agent. Vanunu was kidnapped and drugged by Mossad, before being shipped to Israel, where he was tried in secret and found guilty of espionage and treason; the Sunday Times had printed its article on October 5 under the headline: "Revealed: the secrets of Israel's nuclear arsenal". Israel put up a wall of silence.

Vanunu made contact with the media by writing the details of his abduction on the palm of his left hand, which he held up to the window for waiting photographers to see as he was driven from court.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, and in Jerusalem, Vanunu and I leave the cafe and walk past the shabby backpacker hotel that has been his home for the past 18 months. "I rent one room with a bed and a shower. That's it apart from a toaster." He's embarrassed he has no income and relies on charity.

On release from prison in 2004, Israel put restrictions on Vanunu. He is not allowed to meet with foreigners, nor contact them by phone or email, enter or approach any embassy, visit any port, or come within 500 metres of an international border crossing. In defiance Vanunu has spoken to a number of journalists, insisting that he be allowed to leave Israel.

In July 2007, Vanunu was found guilty of violating the orders against him and sentenced to six months' jail. Last September Jerusalem's District Court reduced his sentence to three months and Vanunu is awaiting a final ruling from the Supreme Court.

"The court offered me six months' community service in West Jerusalem but I refused to do it. I am viewed as an enemy of the state by many Israelis so I would not be safe in the Israeli part of the city. I've had death threats in the past," he says.

What struck me about him five years ago was his extraordinary fortitude and belief that one day he would leave Israel. Although unbowed today, he conveys disillusionment and weariness.
Out of disappointment with the Anglican Church, which he thinks should have done more to help secure his freedom, he now attends a Lutheran Church in the Old City and is alienated from his large Orthodox Jewish family in Tel Aviv.

Journalists have stopped coming. "They didn't like it but I don't want people to speak for me now. I can speak for myself." He now uploads videos to YouTube to campaign for nuclear disarmament and spends his day reading newspapers and surfing the net.

"After nearly five years I know every single part of East Jerusalem and my cage is becoming smaller all the time," he says. But he is not going quiet. "They will never stop me thinking or speaking about what I believe in. Freedom of speech is part of being a human being. If you are not free to speak then you are not a human being."

Some argue Israel's treatment of Vanunu has been appropriate. Ezra Golombok, of the Israel Information Office in Britain, says Vanunu's revelations resulted in three people being murdered by Palestinian terrorists in 1988. "The information he made public concerned the activity at the site, the security arrangements for the reactor, procedures for hiring personnel, the routes that employees took to work and the exact place where workers were picked up by buses. The details he chose to reveal had the effect of setting up the reactor and its workers for military or terrorist attack. Following the publication of Vanunu's article, a group of PLO terrorists hijacked a bus transporting employees to the reactor. Three of Vanunu's co-workers were killed and eight women employees were wounded in the hijacking."

Days later, I meet Vanunu for a meal. "I like this place because it sells alcohol," he says, ordering the salmon and a glass of red. "Do you have salmon in Scotland?" he asks. "Yes, lots of salmon," I reply. "When I finally leave Israel I want to visit Scotland to see the green landscape and the rain."

Tonight he seems more relaxed and sanguine and talks about writing his autobiography and how he wants to travel the world when he finally leaves Israel. He says that one day he would like to meet his "honey trap", Cindy, to have a coffee and to chat about how their lives turned out. He bears no grudges, he says, despite her deceit. At one point he even breaks into a smile.

-Billy Briggs is a Scottish-based journalist.