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Defense employees who were exposed to chemical warfare agents have fallen ill with cancer and other diseases, but the authorities are refusing to recognize the full extent of their disabilities.

The workers say they have also received threatening visits from members of the Defense Ministry's security department Malmab since the workers began a campaign for compensation.

One former employee who fell ill was warned not to tell his story to the media, while another patient's doctor and lawyer both had their computer hard disks seized.

The story was uncovered by Channel 2 television's "Fact" program, which will air tonight.

The Defense Ministry said in response: "[Malmab head] Yehiel Horev never spoke with any of those mentioned in this affair. Any effort to connect his name with the matter is slanderous and misleading."

Captain Avi Meshulam worked in a laboratory at the Tzrifin base that developed and tested protective fabrics against chemical and biological agents. He was exposed for years to mustard gas, nerve gas and other hazardous substances. "We would simply take fabrics and drip substances such as mustard gas on them - small quantities meant only for this purpose," he said. "We wanted to see how long it took them to penetrate the protective fabrics."

He said the workers ate in the lab, which no longer exists, and food was stored in the lab refrigerator.

The defense establishment evidently knew that the experiments were dangerous, because a letter sent to the lab head ordered that they be stopped "until a safety permit is obtained." However, the work continued for several more years, with workers wearing only ordinary rubber gloves, Meshulam said.

The experiments were conducted in sealed glass rooms, and the poisonous fum es were supposedly funneled outside by ventilating hoods. But one former employee, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the hoods "were not the best," and some gas escaped. Meshulam also said he now realizes that the poisonous gases were recirculated through the room by the ventilating system.

The second employee added that during his two years at the lab, he cannot recall ever having been given a medical exam.

Meshulam begin developing health problems during his service, and they worsened after his release. He had respiratory problems that eventually developed into severe asthma, contracted an eye disease, and then, in 1993, was diagnosed with cancer.

But the defense establishment said that for security reasons, he could not see a doctor of his choice or even tell his physicians where he worked and to what substances he had been exposed. And while it recognized his respiratory and eye ailments as work-related, it refused to similarly recognize his cancer.

In the case of another officer who developed serious physical and psychological problems - including chronic pain, palsied hands, memory loss and anger attacks - following an accidental nerve gas leak, the defense establishment recognized the physical ailments, but not the psychological ones. He has not been allowed to see his medical file or given any documentation of the accident.

After he sued the defense establishment, Malmab confiscated documents from him and seized the hard disks from his doctor's and lawyer's computers.

Regarding the hard disk seizures, the Defense Ministry said: "This was an exceptional case in which the plaintiff and the lawyer had possession of classified documents that they removed from the defense establishment without authorization, in violation of the law." The confiscators had a search warrant signed by a judge, it added.