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Resistance and Efforts for Peace

Nuclear whistleblower Vanunu released after 18 years in Israeli prison

Associated Press
April 21, 2004

ASHKELON, Israel (AP) – A defiant Mordechai Vanunu walked out of prison Wednesday after serving 18 years for spilling Israel’s nuclear secrets, saying he was proud of his actions and complaining he was treated cruelly by his jailers.

Vanunu, dressed in a checkered shirt and black tie, flashed victory signs and waved to hundreds of cheering supporters as he walked into the sun-splashed courtyard of Shikma Prison in the coastal town of Ashkelon. Dozens of counter-demonstrators booed and shouted epithets.

In the courtyard, Vanunu, 50, held an impromptu news conference, his brother Meir by his side. Vanunu said he was given “very cruel and barbaric treatment” by Israel’s security services.

“To all those who are calling me traitor, I am saying I am proud, I am proud and happy to do what I did,” Vanunu said in accented English. He refused to answer questions in Hebrew because of restrictions Israel has imposed, including a ban on speaking to foreigners.

Vanunu, who converted to Christianity in the 1980s, said he was mistreated because of his religion. He also said there is no need for a Jewish state and demanded that Israel open its nuclear reactor in Dimona to international inspection.

“I said, Israel don’t need nuclear arms, especially now that all the Middle East is free from nuclear weapons,” he said.

He left the prison in a grey Mazda van and travelled to St. George, an Anglican church near Jerusalem’s Old City. More than a dozen cars and motorcycles followed Vanunu’s vehicle to Jerusalem, and a helicopter flew low overhead.

Israeli authorities have imposed a series of travel restrictions and other constraints on Vanunu, saying he still possesses state secrets. But Vanunu said he has no more secrets to reveal. “I am now ready to start my life,” he said.

On his arrival in Jerusalem, he was mobbed by reporters as the Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, Riah Abu El-Assal, escorted him into the church. Other clergy members embraced Vanunu, and a tearful Peter Hounam, the journalist who wrote the 1986 article in The Sunday Times of London that led to Vanunu’s imprisonment, hugged him.

Inside the church, Vanunu received communion. “He is an Anglican Christian and expressed his desire to offer thanks to God for his release from prison as his first act as a free man,” El-Assal said. Fellow Christians, including clergy from England, the United States and Australia, joined the ritual, he added.

“The Eucharist was offered in Thanksgiving for the resurrection of Jesus Christ and in prayers for Mordechai Vanunu, his family and friends, in the hopes that he can live a normal life from now on,” El-Assal said.

In 1986, Vanunu leaked details and pictures of Israel’s alleged nuclear weapons program to the Sunday Times. Based on his account, experts said at the time that Israel had the world’s sixth-largest stockpile of nuclear weapons.

Inside the church, Vanunu stood in front of an altar alongside a priest in black robes. Later, Meir Vanunu came out and said his brother would remain inside and wouldn’t be answering any more questions. Church officials locked the front gate and told reporters to leave.

Speaking later on Army Radio, the bishop declined to say how long Vanunu would be at the church, but he said Vanunu would not be sleeping there and had no plans to live there.

Vanunu’s revelations to The Times undercut Israel’s long-standing policy of neither confirming nor denying its nuclear capability. He was abducted by Israeli secret agents before the article was printed and subsequently convicted of treason in a closed trial.

Vanunu said Israel’s Mossad spy agency and the Shin Bet security services tried to rob him of his sanity by keeping him in solitary confinement for nearly 12 years. “I said to the Shabak (Shin Bet), the Mossad, you didn’t succeed to break me, you didn’t succeed to make me crazy.”

Asked if he was a hero, he said “all those who are standing behind me, supporting me ... all are heroes.”

“I am a symbol of the will of freedom,” he said. “You cannot break the human spirit.”

Anti-nuclear weapons activists from around the world had gathered at Shikma in recent days. Among his supporters was British actress Susannah York and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Northern Ireland.

But Vanunu is widely detested in Israel.

“He’s hell-bent to do as much harm as he can,” Justice Minister Tommy Lapid told The Associated Press. “We will keep an eye on him, we will watch him. . . . We want to know where he is and we want to know whom he may or may not divulge state secrets.”

Vanunu will not be allowed to travel abroad for at least a year, speak with foreigners or approach Israeli ports or borders. He also is barred from discussing his work at Israel’s nuclear reactor. Vanunu was given a map of Israel marking the areas off-limits to him, the Defence Ministry said.

Vanunu’s family and lawyers have said they are concerned about his safety.

But Lapid said no precautions or special security measures are planned. “He’s surrounded by at least 100 radicals who are worshipping him so I’m sure they’ll take care of his safety,” he said.

Vanunu will live in a luxury apartment complex in Jaffa, an old seaport and today part of Tel Aviv. Jaffa has both Arab and Jewish residents, and Vanunu’s apartment will be near several churches. Vanunu, who was raised as an Orthodox Jew, converted to Christianity in the mid-1980s.

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