It's Time to Free Vanunu

Mordechai Vanunu's harassment by the Israel government is unprecedented and represents a distortion of every accepted legal norm.

Next week the interior minister will renew, for the fifth time, the order banning Mordechai Vanunu from leaving Israel. This comes on top of restrictions issued by the Home Front Command, relying in part on British Mandate Emergency Regulations, forbidding Vanunu from approaching foreign embassies and from speaking with foreigners. He has been confined to Jerusalem, and must report his movements outside the city. The restrictions effectively continue to punish him for his crimes, for which he already has paid.

Vanunu's harassment by the Israel government is unprecedented and represents a distortion of every accepted legal norm. Vanunu, who in the 1970s and 1980s worked as a junior technician in the Dimona nuclear reactor, gave Israel's nuclear secrets to The Sunday Times in 1986. As a consequence, he was abducted by Mossad agents while in Italy, drugged, transported back to Israel, tried, convicted on charges of espionage and treason and sentenced to 18 years in prison, some of which he spent in solitary confinement that nearly drove him insane.

After his release in April 2004, Vanunu sought to leave the country, to raise a family and to begin a new life. It was recently reported that Norway was willing to accept him and give him a work visa. But the Israeli government, with an arbitrariness and an illogical destructiveness, refuses to allow this. After Vanunu completed his sentence, a special ministerial committee that included the justice, defense and interior ministers decided to impose cruel restrictions on him. Vanunu refused to accept this and violated some of the restrictions, in particular the ban against speaking with foreigners. He gave many interviews to the foreign media and was tried for doing so. The Jerusalem Magistrate's Court sentenced him to six months in jail, which has been suspended until after his appeal is heard in the district court next month.

Vanunu is a difficult and complex person. He remains stubbornly, admirably uncompromisingly true to his principles, is willing to pay the price. He wanders between apartments and hostels in East Jerusalem, and has had trouble renting his own place and finding a job. The Palestinians in East Jerusalem are afraid to interact with him, while Israeli Jewish society rejects him, and he does not court it.

It is unpopular to defend Vanunu, one of the most reviled people in Israel. Cabinet ministers, most Knesset members and senior officials, including the attorney general, have remained silent. Since Vanunu's release from prison, there have been four justice ministers: Yosef Lapid, Tzipi Livni, Haim Ramon and now Daniel Friedmann. Not one has attempted even to question to what degree the state has shown inhumanity, injustice and foolishness in this painful chapter.

Leading the campaign to confine Vanunu to Israel is the Defense Ministry's chief security officer, who is in charge of preventing information leaks at the Dimona reactor. For years this position was filled by Yehiel Horev, whose behavior in many areas was controversial. Horev resigned several months ago, but his policy toward Vanunu has remained.

The security chief's main argument, which the cabinet ministers and senior officials accepted at face value, was that Vanunu continues to threaten the country's security. In other words, he ostensibly possesses confidential information that he could publicize if allowed to leave the country. This assumption is problematic. In the intelligence business, one has to assume the worst-case scenario, meaning that Vanunu told the Times everything he knew. By the state's logic, Vanunu will remain a security risk forever, and the restrictions will never be lifted.

One might have expected Friedmann, who seeks to correct injustices in the justice system, to at least question the conduct of the defense establishment. He did not respond to a request by Haaretz for his position on the matter. The new Defense Ministry security chief, Amir Kain, refused to respond when asked how long Vanunu would continue to be punished.

Meanwhile, the restrictions are renewed automatically every six months, keeping Vanunu a prisoner of the state. In a proud country that is celebrating its 60th anniversary, which purports to observe the judicial and moral norms of the enlightened world, one might have expected it to take courage and allow Mordechai Vanunu to be free, once and for all.