Israel nuclear whistleblower Vanunu placed under house arrest over TV interview

Mordechai Vanunu © Ronen Zvulun
Whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu, who served 18 years for exposing details concerning Israel’s clandestine nuclear program in 1986, has been put under house arrest for giving an interview to local media, thus allegedly violating terms of his release.

The Magistrate’s Court in Jerusalem on Thursday confined the nuclear whistleblower to a seven-day house arrest, prohibiting him from using the internet or talking to the press, following a police investigation launched the previous day.

Local media report that the investigation was initiated by Shin Bet (the Israel Security Agency), which has been monitoring Vanunu’s activities since his release in 2004.

The arrest was prompted by an interview the whistleblower gave to the local Channel 2 TV station last week. The news channel said the interview’s content had been cleared for broadcast by the military censor. It added that police also asked for the unedited footage of the interview, suspecting that Vanunu had discussed sensitive information.

Channel 2 refused to hand it over, however, citing the media’s right to protect its sources. This principle is an “important element in the system of rights and freedoms on which a democratic government is based,” the station’s lawyer asserted, as quoted by the Haaretz newspaper.

Vanunu’s defense attorney, Yemima Abramovich, said that the interview was not a breach of his parole, as Vanunu had only been prohibited from talking to foreign journalists.

“He is allowed to talk to Israeli journalists,” she said, as quoted by Ynetnews, stressing that “the interview was approved by the military censor.”

“I’ve been Mordechai Vanunu’s lawyer for many years,” she added. “He is out of prison, but isn’t really free. It’s impossible for him to live a normal life.”

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A senior Israeli security official told DPA news agency that, according to his release agreement, Vanunu was forbidden from sharing any classified information he had obtained as an employee at the Negev Nuclear Research Center near Dimona, “even if he already published that information in the past.”

In the parts of the interview that were aired last Friday, Vanunu spoke about his personal life and motives for leaking information about the existence of Israel’s nuclear activities, which the country neither denies, nor admits. However, he didn’t go into detail about what he leaked to the British press in 1986.

It was a desire to “inform the citizens of the Middle East, the world, and the state of Israel” that had prompted him to act, Vanunu told Channel 2, saying he was horrified at the “danger” posed by the Israel’s nuclear weapons program while working there.

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The African-born Israeli worked as a technician at the Negev Nuclear Research Center until 1985. He leaked the information, including photographs, about Israeli’s nuclear activities to The Sunday Times in 1986.

Israel’s spy agency, Mossad, infamously organized a complex 1986 operation to abduct Vanunu and smuggle him back to Israel. It involved a female agent in disguise seducing the whistleblower and luring him into Rome. Once there, he was injected with a paralyzing drug and transported to an Israeli reconnaissance vessel docked under the guise of a merchant ship.

After serving an 18 year prison sentence, he was released on parole under the terms of which he is prohibited from leaving the state of Israel and having contact with foreigners, including the press. He was imprisoned again for three months in 2010 on the grounds that he had contacted foreign agents.

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Grant F. Smith from the Institute for Research of Middle Eastern policy told RT that Vanunu is the key witness to Israeli’s nuclear program, which the state has kept secret.

“Vanunu did something nobody else was ever able to do,” he said. “He was able to take photos inside of Dimona to the London Sunday Times, and even more surprising – they published them. He has been considered to be the key witness to the fact that there is a nuclear weapons program research and development going on [in Israel]. He was also there right at the point where, according to Department of Defense Documents released recently, they were beginning hydrogen bomb research.”

He said that he’s not surprised, given the secrecy in Israel, as well as in the US, concerning the nuclear program.

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One of the most important reasons Israel keeps its nuclear program a secret, and that the US turns a blind eye, is that “the US, since the mid-70s, cannot give foreign aid under the Symington and Glenn amendments of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act to the countries that have clandestine nuclear programs and that aren’t signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. So if they don’t want to lose their $3.5 billion of aid, plus unknown amounts of intelligence aid, they have to pretend that they don’t know whether they have a program or not.”

Prominent US whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who exposed the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam War to the American media in 1971, told RT that Vanunu remains restricted under obsolete principles contradicting the UN Charter on Human Rights.

Calling Vanunu a “preeminent prophet of the nuclear era,” Ellsberg stressed that Israel must recognize, for its own good, what Vanunu did was right and come clean about the existence of its nuclear weapons program.

“Is it really legitimate for a country to develop nuclear weapons in secret and continue to maintain the secrecy, then, indefinitely from the world, or pretend to keep that secret? I think not. I think Vanunu did exactly the right thing by telling his fellow citizens, and the rest of the world, that Israel had a large nuclear program. And for that, he served 18 years in prison: 10 and a half in a very small cell of isolation – a 6 by 9 foot cell – what Amnesty called “torture,” essentially, for that long period,” Ellsberg said.

The Israeli government should also stop lying to its own people and the world and admit that they were the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East, he added.

“Actually, there were those who felt at the time that he had improved Israeli security by making it clear to their neighbors that they were confronting a nuclear state – something I think they were, on the whole, even the government, was happy to have out. But they wanted to punish the person who had taken it on himself, the initiative to reveal that, and discourage other whistleblowers. And, on the other hand, they wanted to continue their policy of the so-called “ambiguity,” which is just a policy of lying to the public – to their own public and to the world. By the way, they’ve said forever they would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East – they’ve said that over and over. That’s simply a flat government lie,” Ellsberg stressed.

According to the whistleblower, Vanunu’s data and observations indicate that the Israeli stockpile of nuclear weapons is very much underestimated and could actually be the “third largest” in the world after the US and Russia.

READ THE FULL INTERVIEW WITH DANIEL ELLSBERG