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Infamous. Vanunu
Photo: Reuters
Mordechai Vanunu
Nuclear whistle-blower or peace activist fighting against a worldwide nuclear armament race? A man motivated by greed or ideology? Ynetnews takes a look at perhaps the most infamous spy in modern Israeli history

Mordechai Vanunu was born in 1954 in Morocco. He came to Israel at the age of nine, when his family settled in Beersheba. He spent his military service in a combat engineering unit and later got a Bachelor's degree in physics.

 

In 1976 he began working at the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission's Negev facility, as a nuclear technician. While at the IAEC, he began studying for his Masters in philosophy and geography at the Ben Gurion University and became a radical-left activist. Aware of his political activity, he was questioned by IAEC's security officials several times, but was allowed to continue his pursuits.

 

In 1985, Vanunu was fired from the IAEC. Before leaving, he was able to photograph the compound, taking two roles of film of the facility's layout. Later that year he immigrated to Australia and converted to Christianity. While in Australia, he contacted several media outlets in order to make the information he had come across while working at the IAEC public.

 

In early September 1986, the Sunday Times brought him to London, where he gave them the photos, as well as additional information about Israel's nuclear weapons program.

 

'Spies, lies and naked thighs'

The Times began looking into Vanunu's past, trying to establish both his personal credibility as well as that of the information he offered. The Israeli defense establishment learned of the impending publication and decided to try and stop it. A Mossad tracking unit was assigned to find and retrieve the 'nuclear whistle-blower'. They eventually caught up with him in London.

 

On September 30, 1986, the later-to-be-revealed Mossad agent dubbed "Cindy" lured Vanunu to fly to Rome with her. Upon arrival in Italy, he was overpowered by Mossad officers who secretly transported him back to Israel, supposedly by ship. Vanunu was placed in solitary confinement in the Ashkelon Prison and a comprehensive gag order was placed on the entire operation.

 

The Sunday Times broke the story five days after Vanunu "disappeared."

 

Although some of the information provided by Vanunu to the British press was already known, the Sunday Times report created a vast public response since it was, by far, the first time an Israeli source publicly claimed Israel was in possession of nuclear weapons – hydrogen and neutron bombs, to be exact. The publication echoed further, with the uncanny betrayal of an Israeli citizen selling his country's nuclear secrets – which of course meant there were security breaches in Israel's most covert defenses.

 

It wasn't until November that Israel admitted Vanunu was awaiting trial. The Jerusalem District Court held all legal proceedings in the case behind closed doors; and after an 18-month trial Vanunu was found guilty of espionage and treason. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison, all to be served in solitary confinement.

 

Although under heavy guard, Vanunu was able to let the world know he was abducted by righting "Vanunu M was hijacked in Rome. ITL. 30.9.86, 21:00. Came to Rome by fly BA504," on the palm of his hand and flashing it before TV cameras on his way to one of the court hearings. He spent 11 years in solitary confinement, and it was only in 1999, after a long legal battle and petitions filed with the High Court of Justice indicating his sanity was at risk, that the court order he be allowed to join the general prison population.

 

Always the dissident

Vanunu's motives for revealing Israel's atom secrets were never completely made clear: The defense establishment believed his motives were both monetary – he was promised a hefty fee of $75,000 by the Sunday Times; and the animosity he had towards the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission for firing him. Vanunu himself has always maintained he was motivated by pure ideology, his wish to create a public debate regarding Israel's nuclear policies and his desire to stop the global nuclear race. Both Vanunu and the Sunday Times still deny any money ever exchanged hands in return for the information.

 

Many groups dedicated to stopping a worldwide nuclear race rallied to his aid over the years, working to better his confinement conditions and pushing for his early release from prison.

 

In 1993, then-Justice Minister David Libai, revealed that the photos provided by Vanunu and published by the Sunday Times were later used as intelligence by a Fatah terror cell, which took a bus of IAEC workers hostage on March 1988. The terrorists killed two of their 11 hostages before the Israeli SWAT team was able to overtake them.

 

On April 21, 2004, Vanunu completed serving his 18-years sentence. He was place under various security restrictions prior to his release, and orbidden from leaving Israel, entering any of the Palestinian Authority territories, and talking to foreign press. He is also required to report all his actions to his parole officers. 

 

Declared a "prisoner of conscience" by Amnesty International, which described his imprisonment as "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment... such as is prohibited by international law," he received the Right Livelihood Award in 1987, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Tromsø in Norway in 2001. Vanunu has also been mentioned for the Nobel Peace Prize every year from 1988 to 2004, the last time by Irish Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Corrigan. In 2005 he received Norway's Folkets fredspris – the Peace Prize of the Norwegian People. In September 2004, Yoko Ono named Vanunu the winner of the John Lennon Peace Prize.

 

In July 2004, Vanunu was "adopted" by Nick and Mary Eoloff – devout Christian pacifists from St. Paul, Minnesota.

 

In 2007 Vanunu was sentenced to six months in prison and a three-year suspended sentence after being convicted on 15 counts of parole violations, including violating military orders prohibiting him from talking to foreign journalists and leaving Israel.

 

Mordechai Vanunu has appealed for asylum in Belgium twice – in 2005 and in 2008. Both petitions were denied