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Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lipid (c) with former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who resigned his position after being indicted on charges of fraud and breach of trust, at the Feb. 5 swearing in of the 19th Knesset. (URIEL SINAI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 2004, pages 16-17
After 18 Years in Prison, Mordechai Vanunu Is Free at Last
By Felice Cohen-Joppa
LONG-IMPRISONED nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu emerged from Ashkelon Prison on April 21, welcomed to freedom by several hundred supporters from Israel and around the world who were gathered outside the prison gate. Moving deliberately past the throng of press just inside the prison compound, surrounded by assorted officials and guards, Vanunu walked to the gate. Holding both hands high with the signs of victory and peace, he stepped up onto the bars to acknowledge his supporters.
The just-released prisoner of conscience then made a statement to the international reporters. “I am proud and happy to do what I did,” he said. “I will continue to speak against all kinds of nuclear weapons, against all democracies’ nuclear weapons.”
Calling for Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor and bomb factory to be opened to international inspection, Vanunu added: “I don’t have any secrets. I don’t want to harm Israel. I want a new life. I want to go to United States, to marry a wife and to start my life.”
Asked about being a hero, Vanunu replied, “All those who stood behind me and who supported me for 18 years are the heroes. I am a symbol of the will of freedom. You cannot break the human spirit.”
Just behind me in the crowd outside the gate, a group of young Israeli anarchists loudly shouted slogans in Hebrew: “Mordechai Vanunu is a Hero” and “Vanunu—Yes, Nukes—No,” effectively drowning out the screaming of a mob of extreme right-wing Israelis who had invaded our gathering. Some in the mob shouted, “Kill Vanunu!”, held black roses, and threw eggs and rocks at Vanunu’s supporters. They ripped up and burned some of the posters we had printed for the occasion, large photos of Vanunu smiling, with the words “Thank You Mordechai Vanunu—Peace Hero, Nuclear Whistleblower.” The small number of police present stood nearby, doing very little to control the angry crowd.
A British supporter played “We Shall Overcome” and other songs on his trumpet, the clear notes breaking through the chaotic scene. Other supporters held flowers high, some tossing them as the car carrying Mordechai, his brothers Asher and Meir, and Meir’s young son, Luca, exited through the prison gates.
An hour prior to Vanunu’s 11 a.m. scheduled release, supporters had released 18 white doves into the morning sky, one for each year of his imprisonment. Then, at the moment Vanunu was driven out of the prison, several people watched as one of the white doves flew out from inside the prison compound, and circled overhead. Overcome with joy, people began chanting, “Vanunu is free, Vanunu is free.”
Fulfilling Mordechai’s first request, the Vanunu brothers drove straight to St. George’s Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem, so that he could pray and give thanks for his release. (He had converted to Christianity in 1986, at an Anglican church in Australia.)
An apartment in Jaffa previously had been quietly arranged for Vanunu. Two days before his release, however, Israeli media publicized its location. With no privacy, and public threats on his life, Vanunu was granted sanctuary by the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, Rt. Rev. Riah Abu al-Assal.
More than 80 supporters from over a dozen countries, including British Parliament members Jeremy Corbyn and Colin Breed, actress Susannah York, adoptive parents Nick and Mary Eoloff from St. Paul, MN, and Nobel Peace Laureate Mairaed Maguire comprised the international delegation that joined Israeli supporters at the prison gate. Together they had planned a celebration dinner that evening at a restaurant in Jaffa. But the press published that location as well, causing the dinner to be canceled because of security concerns.
Because Mordechai Vanunu very much wanted to greet the people who had come from around the world to see him, Bishop Riah invited the group to St. George’s. We were struck by Mordechai’s strength, dignity and warmth, as he greeted, hugged and kissed us all. Many of us had tears in our eyes as he thanked us for our support over the long years of incarceration. Some of those who couldn’t be with us to share our joy were remembered—particularly Sam Day, who, as the coordinator of the U.S. Campaign, worked tirelessly for Mordechai Vanunu’s release for many years, until his death in 2001.
Restrictions and Threats
wait for permission to visit him in prison (AFP Photo/Gali Tibbon).
Mordechai Vanunu’s newfound freedom is seriously compromised, however. A package of restrictions based on 1945 British Mandate emergency regulations was delivered to Vanunu during his last week behind bars. Most significantly, he is forbidden to leave Israel for at least one year.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) is representing Vanunu in an appeal of the draconian restrictions to Israel’s High Court. In addition to not being allowed to leave Israel, other restrictions include: not being allowed to come within a certain distance of embassies, ports, and borders; not being allowed to travel within Israel beyond the city of his residence without advance permission; not being allowed to speak about his work at Dimona (although he is free to speak about his kidnapping from Italy by the Mossad); not being allowed to speak to the foreign press; and limits on and monitoring of phone and Internet use.
At a prison vigil and press conference at Ashkelon Prison on April 20, the eve of Vanunu’s release, many of the 200 supporters who gathered tied black cloths across their mouths in protest of these outrageous restrictions, which were denounced by Amnesty International as a violation of Vanunu’s human rights. The restrictions have the effect of “banning” him from participating fully in civil society, at risk of further imprisonment.
The injustice of not being allowed to leave Israel is compounded by the fact that Vanunu is under threat of harm as long as he remains in the country. One extremist, who threw himself on the hood of the car as Vanunu left the prison, told a reporter in front of the church the next day, “We will pursue Vanunu wherever he goes...Wherever he goes we’ll be there. He’ll never be able to walk free until the last day of his life.”
An Internet poll by the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv two days after his release shows one in three respondents chose the option “killed” in answer to the question, “What should be done with Vanunu?”
Israeli officials say they are watching Vanunu closely because they are certain he has damaging secrets yet to tell. But his safety matters not. “He’s surrounded by at least 100 radicals who are worshiping him, so I’m sure they’ll take care of his safety,” said Justice Minister Tomy Lapid. No special security measures are planned for Vanunu’s benefit, he added.
The presence of Mordechai Vanunu at the Cathedral has posed some practical challenges for the church. Despite the pressure presented by stalking press, Israeli security agents, and right-wingers outside the church, however, Bishop Riah assured Vanunu of continued sanctuary on April 26.
Mordechai Vanunu now must wait for his appeal to be considered. If it is unsuccessful, other diplomatic means to get him safely out of Israel are being pursued, including Vanunu’s public appeal to Norway to give him a passport on humanitarian grounds.
How to Help
The international campaign is raising money to help Mordechai Vanunu rebuild his life. Please help! Unable to leave St. George’s because of safety concerns, and with his immediate future uncertain, he very much needs our financial support. Donations can be sent to The U.S. Campaign to Free Mordechai Vanunu, P.O. Box 43384, Tucson, AZ 85733, USA. Checks should be made payable to the U.S. Campaign to Free Mordechai Vanunu, with “for Mordechai” written on the memo line.
For more information, and to sign an internet petition calling for an end to the restrictions, go to <www.vanunu.com>. Another way to protest the restrictions is by calling or sending letters via post, e-mail or fax to the Israeli Embassy in your country.
Felice Cohen-Joppa is coordinator of the U.S. Campaign to Free Mordechai Vanunu.