Ten Years of Hell In An Israeli Jail: The following story is from the September 29, 1996 issue of The London Sunday Times and was sent by a friend on the east coast who said; “This story you will not read in the American press. Note his real sin...converting to Christianity...” It is about the suffering of a man who alerted the world to Israel’s secret nuclear program.
When Mordechai Vanunu wakes up tomorrow morning he will once again face the grim surroundings that some fear could drive him mad. A drab bookshelf. A tiny window high in the tiled wall through which no direct sunlight can shine. A small table at which he can study. And a hole in the floor which doubles as a shower drain and a toilet. Nobody would like to spend even a week incarcerated in such conditions, yet tomorrow is the tenth anniversary of his capture by a Mossad hit-team.
The 41-year-old Israeli has spent 3,652 days in solitary confinement in a jail south of Tel Aviv and his ordeal is far from over; he is not due for release until 2004. Vanunu is serving an 18-year sentence for treason and espionage, but he is no spy. His “crime” was to reveal details of Israel’s secret nuclear weapons plant at Dimona to The Sunday Times. As such, he became the world’s most famous nuclear whistle-blower; the man who managed to puncture Israel’s pretense that it had no nuclear capability when it had an arsenal of 100-200 atom bombs and the ability to make thermonuclear weapons.
I first met Vanunu in the Hilton in Sydney in July 1986. He was shaking with fear, not knowing whether I was really an Insight Team reporter or an Israeli spy who was out to kill him. My assignment was to find out if rumors were true that he had worked in Israel’s plutonium separation plant and was willing to talk. It quickly became clear he was not interested in money and that his decision to speak stemmed from a discussion at a local Anglican church were he had converted to Christianity. He could understand why his country might need a handful of atom bombs as an ultimate deterrent but not in the quantities being built at Domona.
Vanunu had been a middle-ranking technician in the plant and his superiors may have underestimated his intelligence and resourcefulness. As he told his tale, at first in Australia and two weeks later in London, it became clear that he had a good memory of the processes he had worked on. It was possible for us to calculate the quantity of chemicals flowing through the plant and to estimate how much plutonium 239 was being extracted. This showed that up to 200 bombs had been manufactured since the plant came on stream in 1963, as well as tritium, potentially a component of fusion weapons.
It gradually dawned on the Mossad team stalking him that Vanunu could prove to be a formidable witness. The order went out from Jerusalem to get him; but not from Britain where Margaret Thatcher was regarded as a good ally. Italy was thought to be an easier touch, a country less likely to worry about a foreign visitor’s human rights. But how would they get him out of the hands of The Sunday Times? The task of luring him away fell to a blond agent calling herself Cindy, posing as a sexy American student.
In executing this honey trap, Mossad was inadvertently helped by The Sunday Times. The care the paper took to verify Vanunu’s allegations, and our postponement of the publishing deadline, made him angry. He began to take fewer precautions about his own safety and, while walking alone in London’s Leicester Square, Cindy managed to catch his eye. They went for a coffee and started to date. Vanunu confessed his unhappiness and within days the Mossad plant had persuaded him to go on a short holiday. On September 30, 1986, 10 years ago tomorrow, they caught a flight to Rome.
At an apartment on the city’s suburbs, he was hurled to the ground by two male Israeli agents who were lying in wait. They chained him up and plunged a strange into his arm. For the next six days he was kept unconscious by repeated injections as he was smuggled back to Israel aboard a ship. The carefully planned operation was spoiled only when The Sunday Times tracked Cindy down and published her identity; Cheryl Bentov, a naturalized Israeli brought up in Florida.
Vanunu’s capture was blatantly illegal. He was assaulted, imprisoned and abducted from a foreign country in contravention of that country’s laws. It was also a breach of international law. Time and again the prisoner has been to the Supreme Court in Jerusalem to argue he should be returned to Italy. The suspicion grows that the reason Israel is so reluctant to release him, or at least end his solitary confinement so that he can talk to other prisoners, has nothing to do with his nuclear knowledge. It is because he might reveal more embarrassing details of the honey trap.
Vanunu’s courage and spirit are undimmed and he refuses to retract his evidence or apologize for his actions. He is allowed a visit from his close family once a fortnight, but otherwise guards are his only human contact. He communicates with the outside world through letters which often arrive several months late with passages cut out by the censor’s scalpel.
In his most recent letter to me, he insists he will not bow to the Israeli security machine. He rejects suggestions he could help his early release by making some limited promise not to reveal further information. “You and others know my opinion very well,” he writes. “I did the right thing by going to the media. Now, after nine and a half years in solitary confinement, accepting any demand for me to be silent would mean it was not right.
They are coming to me with demands, but it is me who should be making demands form them, to reveal the truth about their nuclear secrets, about the kidnaping and about cheating the Arab world for the last 50 years by starting false wars to justify having nuclear weapons...I have suffered enough. Now I have to be free and speak as a free man.”
The letters give a glimpse of his defiance. So did the release to an Israeli newspaper earlier this month of a transcript of one of the court petitions Vanunu still brings, partly to score points against his captors. He recently demanded a daily allowance of fresh bread during the eight-day fast at Passover.
“I demand from this country which is the keeper of law and which has very strict control of every word I say to abide by the law and supply fresh bread to every citizen including prisoners,” he said.
Over the past 10 years, all appeals in the Israeli courts against his conviction and for clemency have been rebuffed but campaigners, who include the actresses Julie Christie and Susannah York and the playwright Harold Pinter, believe there are glimmers of hope...