Dr. Mordechai Vanunu is a former Israeli nuclear technician who publicly exposed Israel's possession of nuclear weapons. When Israel learned of this, he was kidnapped by the Mossad, tried in secret, and sentenced to eighteen years in prison. He was released from prison on April 21, 2004. According to the Israeli Defense Ministry, Vanunu will not be allowed to leave Israel for one year after his release, because of a "a tangible danger...that Vanunu wishes to divulge state secrets, secrets that he has not yet divulged and which have not been previously published." In addition he is not allowed to meet with or speak to any foreigner or enter Internet chat rooms.
Vanunu is seen by human rights groups as a prisoner of conscience, and they often compare him to the German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize several times, including the prize for 2004.
Vanunu was born in Marrakech, Morocco and emigrated with his family to Israel in 1963. After completing his military service in the Israel Defense Forces he became a student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Between 1976 and 1985, Vanunu was a nuclear technican at the Negev Nuclear Research Center, an Israeli facility which, according to the majority of defence experts, is used for manufacturing nuclear weapons, located in the Negev desert south of Dimona. There he had increasingly grown troubled about the Israeli nuclear program for which he worked. In 1985, he was laid off from Dimona and left Israel. He arrived at Nepal, and considered a conversion to Buddhism. In 1986 he travelled to Sydney, Australia, where he converted to Christianity. He then, while still in Sydney, met with Peter Hounam, a journalist from the Sunday Times.
In early September 1986, he 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. On September 30, 1986, a female Mossad agent Cheryl Bentov operating under the name of "Cindy", pretending to be an American tourist, persuaded Vanunu to fly to Rome with her on a holiday. 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 permitted no contact with the media -- he managed, however, 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 singlehandedly changed Israel's standard procedures for transporting prisoners, to prevent it from happening again.
The Israeli court sentenced him to 18 years imprisonment.
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."
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 promoted honorary doctor (dr. h.c.) at the University of Troms� in 2001.
Vanunu and the story of Israel's Nuclear secrets were the subjects of a BBC Correspondent televison programme, Israel's Secret Weapon. The programme was broadcast on BBC2 in the UK on March 17 2003.
Vanunu remains bitter about the whole incident, considering it worth 18 years of his life to expose Israel's nuclear secrets. While in prison, he took part in small acts of rebellion, such as refusing to talk with the guards, reading only English-language newspapers, and watching only the 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".
Upon his release, Vanunu claimed he had no further secrets, and indicated a desire to completely dissociate himself from Israel: he refused to speak in Hebrew, and expressed a desire to move to the United States as soon as the Israeli government would permit him to do so.