JERUSALEM — Israel on Friday formally charged a former technician at its highly restricted Dimona nuclear facility with treason and aggravated espionage for revealing atomic secrets to a British newspaper.
If convicted, the former technician, Mordechai Vanunu, 32, could face the death penalty.
By indicting Vanunu, the authorities appear to be lending credence to the report in the London Sunday Times that Israel has been building nuclear weapons for 20 years and that, with a current stockpile of up to 200 warheads, it has become the sixth largest nuclear power in the world. The newspaper's report was based on Vanunu's disclosures.
However, Israel radio reported Friday that the law does not require the state to prove that Vanunu's information was accurate in order to secure a conviction. The prosecutor does not intend to address at trial the question of whether or not Israel actually has nuclear weapons, Israel radio also said.
Israel has purposely maintained an ambiguous posture on its nuclear capability, saying only that it will not be the first to introduce atomic weapons into the region. The ambiguity is in itself considered a deterrent against possible enemy attack.
The Moroccan-born Vanunu, who emigrated to Israel as a child, was not in court to hear the two-count charge sheet against him. It was read "in camera" to his Israeli attorney, Amnon Zichrony, who refused to comment on the case.
The court is expected on Sunday to formally extend Vanunu's remand until completion of all legal proceedings against him. His trial, which is expected to begin next month, will be conducted behind closed doors.
Vanunu was accused of deliberately committing "an act which assists the enemy in its war against Israel." Section 99A of the Israeli criminal code defines such assistance as "the deliberate transfer of information intended to reach the enemy, or in the knowledge that it is likely to reach the enemy, regardless of whether there is a (formal) state of war at the time of transfer."
Technically, Israel has remained at war with several of its Arab neighbors since 1948.
Vanunu also was accused under section 113B of the penal code of conveying "secret information without authorization to do so and with the intent of harming state security."
Treason is punishable by death here, while aggravated espionage carries a possible life sentence.
Vanunu left the country early this year after being fired from his job as a night-shift technician in Dimona. He took with him plans and more than 60 undeveloped photographs of a series of highly sensitive underground chambers that reputedly house Israel's nuclear weapons facilities.
After traveling to Australia, where he converted to Christianity, Vanunu sold his story to the London Sunday Times for what has been described as a "six-figure" sum, which he never collected.
Five days before the newspaper published its disclosures early last month, the technician disappeared from the London hotel where he had been staying. Israel confirmed on Nov. 9 that he was being held here, but the authorities have refused to disclose how he got here other than to say it involved no violation of British law.
According to unconfirmed reports in the foreign press, he was lured out of Britain by a Mossad intelligence agent named Cindy and was captured while on a yacht in the Mediterranean.
Friends and relatives said Vanunu, who worked for more than nine years at Dimona, had become increasingly radical in recent years. He was active in student politics at Beersheba University, demonstrating on behalf of Arab and underprivileged Jewish students. Shortly after being fired, he became a candidate member of Israel's Communist Party.
The Israeli press has referred to his continued employment at Dimona and his departure from the country with secret documents as one of the country's most serious security breaches ever. And Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said Friday that the Israeli Cabinet will discuss the security implications of the case at a future meeting.
Informed Israeli sources say that there was a debate within top decision-making circles here after it was learned Vanunu had made a deal with the London Sunday Times. Some Israeli leaders, reportedly including Shamir, are said to have favored ignoring the whole incident.
Others, however, including Mossad officials, argued successfully that he had to be brought back for two reasons: to find out if he had passed information separately to other countries, and as a protective measure to insure he was not abducted by some hostile government.