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Mordechai Vanunu

Mordechai Vanunu (מרדכי ואנונו) (born October 13, 1954) is a former Israeli nuclear technician who publicly exposed Israel's possession of nuclear weapons. When Israel learned of this, he was abducted by Mossad (although upon release Vanunu claimed it was the CIA) from Italy and tried in secret. Convicted of treason he was sentenced to 18 years in prison, more than 11 years of which were served in solitary confinement. Vanunu was released from prison on April 21, 2004, and is subject to a broad array of speech and travel restrictions. On November 11, 2004, following multiple alleged violations of those restrictions, he was arrested again after an interview by the media.

Vanunu was seen by many human rights groups as a prisoner of conscience, and they often compare him to the German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky. Amnesty International described his treatment as constituting "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment [...] such as is prohibited by international law." (See also: International human rights instruments) Vanunu has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize every year from 1988 to 2004 and was elected as Rector of the University of Glasgow in December 2004; however, the Israeli government considers him a traitor.




On October 5, 1986, the British newspaper The Sunday Times ran the story on its front page under the headline: "Revealed — the secrets of Israel's nuclear arsenal."
On October 5, 1986, the British newspaper The Sunday Times ran the story on its front page under the headline: "Revealed — the secrets of Israel's nuclear arsenal."

Vanunu was born in Marrakech, Morocco to a Jewish family. He had 11 brothers and sisters, and emigrated with his family to Israel in 1963. Vanunu completed his three years of military service in the sapper unit of the Israeli Defense Forces, with the rank of sergeant. After being honorably discharged, Vanunu became a philosophy student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, where he became critical of many policies of the Israeli government, forming a group called Campus with four other Jewish students and five Arab students. Vanunu also admired his professor, Evron Pollakov, a left-wing professor at Ben-Gurion University who had refused to serve with the IDF in Lebanon and had been jailed because of it. Vanunu also was affiliated with a group called Movement for the Advancement of Peace.

Between 1976 and 1985, Vanunu was employed as a nuclear technician at the Negev Nuclear Research Center, an Israeli facility which, according to the majority of defense experts, is used for manufacturing nuclear weapons; it is located in the Negev desert south of Dimona. There he became increasingly troubled about the Israeli nuclear program on which he worked. In 1985, he was laid off from Dimona and left Israel. He arrived at Nepal, and considered a conversion to Buddhism, later traveling to Burma and Thailand. In 1986, he traveled to Sydney, Australia. While in Sydney, Vanunu lived in a hostel in the Kings Cross and worked odd jobs, first as a hotel dishwasher and later a taxi driver.

Vanunu also began to come to the local church, St. John's. There he met the Reverend John McKnight, who worked with the homeless and drug addicts. Vanunu converted to Christianity and was baptized into the Anglican Church. This isolated him from his family. While still in Sydney, he met with Peter Hounam, a journalist from the Sunday Times.


Vanunu revealed details of his kidnapping by writing on his hand: "Vanunu M was hijacked in Rome. ITL. 30.9.86, 21:00. Came to Rome by fly BA504."
Vanunu revealed details of his kidnapping by writing on his hand: "Vanunu M was hijacked in Rome. ITL. 30.9.86, 21:00. Came to Rome by fly BA504."

In early September 1986, Vanunu flew to London with Hounam, and revealed to the Sunday Times his knowledge of the Israeli nuclear program, including photographs he had secretly taken at the Dimona site. Anxious to avoid being duped by another Hitler Diaries-sized hoax, the Sunday Times spent extensive time verifying Vanunu’s story with leading experts. Allegedly bored and annoyed by the length of time Hounam was taking with his research, Vanunu approached a rival newspaper, the tabloid Sunday Mirror, whose owner was Robert Maxwell. In 1991, a self-proclaimed former Mossad officer called Ari Ben-Menashe alleged that Maxwell, who was Jewish, had tipped off the Mossad about Vanunu. It is also possible that enquiries by Sunday Mirror journalists to the Israeli Embassy in London alerted the Mossad. On September 30, 1986, an American Mossad agent, Cheryl Bentov, operating under the name of "Cindy" and masquerading as an American tourist, began an affair with Vanunu, eventually persuading him to fly to Rome with her on a holiday. The Israeli government had promised Margaret Thatcher that they would not conduct operations on British soil. Therefore it was important to get Vanunu out of the country under his own steam. Once in Rome, Mossad agents kidnapped and drugged him, and returned him to Israel on a freighter. That marked the beginning of what was to be more than a decade of solitary confinement in Israeli prisons.

Shortly after his kidnapping, on October 5, the Times published the information he had revealed, and estimated that Israel had produced more than 100 nuclear warheads. Vanunu was then put on trial in Israel on charges of treason and espionage. The trial was held in secret, at the District Court in Jerusalem, before Chief Justice Eliahu Noam and judges Zvi Tal and Shalom Brener , and he was not permitted contact with the media — however, he cleverly managed to reveal to them the date and location of his kidnapping, by means of writing it on the palm of his hand which he held against the window of a van while being transported so that waiting journalists could get the information. This act caused Israel's standard procedures for transporting prisoners to be changed to prevent it from happening again.


On February 27, 1988, the Israeli court sentenced him to 18 years imprisonment from the date of his capture.

The Israeli government kept him in near total isolation for more than 11 years, allegedly afraid that he might reveal more Israeli nuclear secrets. However, many critics argue that Vanunu does not have any information that would pose a real security threat to Israel, and that the Israeli government's real motivation is a desire to avoid political embarrassment for itself and allies such as the United States. Dr. Ray Kidder, a senior American nuclear scientist, has said:

"On the basis of this research and my own professional experience, I am ready to challenge any official assertion that Mr. Vanunu possesses any technical nuclear information not already made public." [1]

His last appeal against his conviction, to the Israeli Supreme Court in 1990, failed. The Israeli government refused to release the transcript of the court case until, after the threat of legal action, it finally agreed to let censored extracts be published in Yedioth Ahronoth, an Israeli newspaper, in late 1999.

The European Parliament has condemned Israel's treatment of Vanunu, and referred to his kidnapping by Mossad agents as a gross violation of Italian sovereignty and international law.

Vanunu was given an honorary doctorate at the University of Tromsø in 2001.

Vanunu and the story of Israel's nuclear secrets were the subjects of Israel's Secret Weapon, a BBC Correspondent television program. It was broadcast on BBC2 in the UK on March 17, 2003. Vanunu remains bitter about the whole incident, but has stated that he has has no regrets. While in prison, Vanunu says, he took part in small acts of rebellion, such as refusing to talk with the guards, reading only English-language newspapers, and watching only BBC TV. He even refused to eat food when it was served to him so as to maintain a small portion of his life not under Israeli control. "He is the most stubborn, principled, and tough person I have ever met," said his lawyer, Avigdor Feldman.

On February 5, 2004, former Mossad director Shabtai Shavit told Reuters that the option of killing Vanunu was considered in 1986 but "Jews don't do that to other Jews." [2] (Compare with: Forced disappearance).


Vanunu was released from prison on April 21, 2004. Upon his release, Vanunu claimed he had no further secrets to reveal, and indicated a desire to completely dissociate himself from Israel: He refused to speak in Hebrew, and expressed a desire to move to Scandinavia, Ireland or France as soon as the Israeli government would permit him to do so.

Release restrictions

A number of restrictions have been placed upon Vanunu by Israeli authorities, who stated their reason was fear of him spreading further state secrets. These stipulate that:

  • Vanunu will have to register to live in an Israeli city of his choice.
  • He will have to give notice to the authorities if he wishes to travel to another city.
  • He will not be allowed to leave Israel for 6 months. This restriction will be reviewed at the end of 6 months and could be renewed.
  • He will not be allowed to contact foreigners either by phone or in person.
  • He will not be allowed to enter any embassy, visit any port of entry, or come within 500 meters of any international border crossing.

Vanunu says that his knowledge is now all outdated, and that he has nothing more he could possibly reveal, that is not already widely known. Despite the stated restrictions, since his release Vanunu has freely given interviews to the foreign press, including a live phone interview to BBC Radio Scotland.

On April 22, 2004, Vanunu asked the Norwegian government for a Norwegian passport and asylum in Norway for "humanitarian reasons", according to Norwegian news agencies. He also sent applications to other countries, and stated that he would accept asylum in any country because he fears for his life. Former conservative Norwegian Prime Minister Kåre Willoch has asked the conservative government to give Vanunu asylum, and the University of Tromsø has offered him a job. His application for asylum in Sweden was rejected by the Swedish immigration department, since it does not accept absentee asylum applications.

2004 arrests

On Thursday, November 11, 2004, Vanunu was arrested by the International Investigations Unit of the Israeli police at around 9 a.m. while eating breakfast. The arrest stemmed from an ongoing probe examining suspicions of leaking national secrets and violating legal rulings since his release from prison. About 20 commandos wearing bulletproof vests and carrying machine guns entered into the walled compound of St. George's Anglican church in East Jerusalem, where Vanunu had been renting a room since his release. Police removed papers and a computer from his room. After a few hours' detention, Vanunu was put under house arrest, which is to last seven days.

The arrest came three months after Vanunu said in an interview that Israel was behind the John F. Kennedy assassination. In the interview he had said the assassination was due to "pressure [Kennedy] exerted on then-head of government David Ben-Gurion to shed light on Dimona's nuclear reactor." (See also: Kennedy assassination theories).

According to a BBC report, there have been suggestions that Vanunu's latest arrest on the day of Yasser Arafat's death may have been timed to try to avoid widescale international media coverage.

On December 24, 2004, Vanunu, was apprehended by Israeli Police while he was attempting to exit Israel, in a vehicle marked as belonging to foreign press, into the West bank, in violation of his release restrictions (see above). After posting bail of 50,000 NIS, he was released into five-day house arrest, as reported by the BBC

Books about the case

  • Black, Ian, Israel's Secret Wars: A History of Israel's Intelligence Services, Grove Press, 1992, ISBN 0802132863
  • Cohen, Avner. Israel and the Bomb, New York: Columbia University Press (1999), ISBN 0231104839
  • Cohen, Yoel. The Whistleblower of Dimona: Israel, Dimona & the Bomb. ISBN 084191432X
  • Gaffney, Mark. Dimona: The Third Temple? The Story Behind the Vanunu Revelation. ISBN 0915597772
  • Gilling, Tom and John McKnight. Trial and Error — Mordechai Vanunu and Israel's Nuclear Bomb. 1991 Monarch Publications. ISBN 185424129X
  • Hounam, Peter. The Woman from Mossad: The Torment of Mordechai Vanunu. ISBN 1583940057 paperback edition title: The Woman from Mossad: The Story of Mordechai Vanunu & the Israeli Nuclear Program
  • Toscano, Louis. Triple Cross. 1990 Birch Lane Press ISBN 155972028X
  • Vanunu and the Bomb.

External links

Source documents and interviews

  • Sunday Times articles from 1986,,1-1081668,00.html
  • Vanunu receives honorary doctorate
  • Israeli Court attempts to impose restrictions on Vanunu's free speech
  • Mordechai Vanunu Risks Jail To Speak to Democracy Now! in First Nat'l U.S. Interview
  • Vanunu 'held' by Israeli police
  • Enav, Peter. "Israeli nuclear whistle blower Mordechai Vanunu arrested for passing on classified documents." The Associated Press. November 11, 2004. [3]
  • Kayw, Taakov, and Arieh O'Sullivan. "A-G orders Vanunu arrested." The Jerusalem Post. November 11, 2004. [4]
  • "Israeli police detain nuke whistleblower Vanunu." Reuters. November 11, 2004. [5]

Supporters' websites

  • Justice for Vanunu
  • The US Campaign to Free Mordechai Vanunu
  • Letters from Solitary — book of letters from Mordechai Vanunu to Rev. David B. Smith of Sydney, Australia, through whom Vanunu converted to Christianity. PDF copy: Light version , the full version, with reproductions of each letter, is available from Father David's web site .
  • Mordechai Vanunu tells the story of his life
  • BBC Correspondent — Israel's Secret Weapon , broadcast on March 17, 2003, gave an update of Vanunu's plight. There is also a transcript
  • Our Son, The Rebel,3604,727367,00.html interview with his adoptive parents.
  • Who's afraid of Mordechai Vanunu?
  • Excerpts from Vanunu's statement upon release from prison
  • The 1987 Right Livelihood Award for Mordechai Vanunu
  • Free Prisoner of Conscience, Mordechai Vanunu, With No Restrictions! (Report by The Israeli Committee for Mordechai Vanunu and for a Middle East Free of Atomic, Biological and Chemical Weapons)
  • Sydney link to Israeli prisoner of conscience from The National Council of Churches in Australia.
  • Bruderhof Peacemakers Guide profile on Mordechai Vanunu
  • Information on Vanunu's candidature for Glasgow University Rector.
  • Vanunu elected Glasgow University rector

Neutral websites

  • Better World Links on Mordechai Vanunu and Israel's Atomic Weapons
  • Amnesty International report from 1998
  • Amnesty International report from April 2004

Detractors' websites

  • Ari Ben-Menashe on the Capture of Mordechai Vanunu
  • A Mossad perspective on the capture of Mordechai Vanunu
  • Memorandum Regarding Mordechai Vanunu
    on the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs website

Last updated: 02-10-2005 14:36:50
Last updated: 05-01-2005 16:30:51