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Israeli Held 17 Years for Treason Is Free, Defiant

April 22, 2004|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Mordechai Vanunu, the onetime nuclear technician who divulged top- secret details of Israel's atomic weapons program, emerged defiant and combative Wednesday from an Israeli prison where he served a 17 1/2-year sentence for treason and espionage, much of it spent in solitary confinement.

In a chaotic question-and- answer session at the jailhouse gates, Vanunu -- harsh-voiced and hawk-featured, with a fringe of silvery hair -- declared that he had no regrets about leaking Israel's nuclear secrets to a British newspaper in 1986. The case is still regarded by Israeli officials as one of the most damaging espionage breaches in the country's history.

"I am proud and happy to do what I did," said Vanunu, 50, speaking in heavily accented and sometimes ungrammatical English. In a gesture of scorn for things Israeli, Vanunu -- who converted to Christianity in jail and says he wants to renounce his Israeli citizenship -- refused to answer questions in Hebrew, though he used it to snap at one persistent Hebrew-language questioner: "Shut up, you jerk!"

With his brother Meir hovering nearby and occasionally trying to shush him, Vanunu called on U.S. officials to force Israel to open its still-undeclared nuclear weapons program to inspection, described the cloak-and-dagger-style operation in which the Mossad spy agency lured him to his capture in Rome, and denounced the "cruel and barbaric" treatment he received behind bars.

"You didn't succeed to break me," he said, addressing the Israeli security services. "You didn't succeed to make me crazy."

Israel has for decades adhered to a studied doctrine of "nuclear ambiguity," neither confirming nor denying that it possesses a stockpile of atomic arms. Vanunu's disclosures drastically undercut that policy. Based on the photographs, diagrams and documents that he leaked to the Sunday Times of London nearly two decades ago, Israel was estimated at that time to have the world's sixth-largest nuclear arsenal.

So well-documented a disclosure of Israel's nuclear capabilities caused an enormous international outcry and dramatically ratcheted up tensions with the country's Arab neighbors. At the same time, it was a black eye for Israel's much-vaunted ability to safeguard its military secrets.

Although held all but incommunicado through the years following his secrecy-shrouded trial, Vanunu has long exerted a powerful if deeply polarizing hold on the popular imagination in Israel and abroad.

To his mainly foreign backers -- hundreds of whom turned out to greet him with flowers and welcoming signs, while angry counterdemonstrators booed and swore -- Vanunu is a courageous figure who followed his conscience to bring to light a weapons program he considered immoral and dangerous.

But to most Israelis, he is nothing more than a traitor -- perhaps the ultimate sin in a small, close-knit country that has spent much of its existence in a state of war.

As Vanunu was speaking outside Shikma prison in the Israeli coastal town of Ashkelon, Israeli troops were engaged in a second day of fierce fighting with Palestinian gunmen in the northern Gaza Strip, less than a dozen miles away. Nine Palestinians were reportedly killed, bringing the two-day toll in fighting in the area to 14.

Among Israelis, there is also a split between those who believe Vanunu has paid the price for his actions and those who think he should face continuing consequences. A poll published Wednesday in the daily newspaper Haaretz said nearly half of all respondents thought Vanunu was being released too soon, and one-quarter thought he should not be freed at all if he posed a security threat.

Although treason is considered the most serious of crimes, Israel does not have the death penalty, and a standard life sentence is typically reduced to 25 years, with time off for good behavior.

Vanunu's capture was a storied operation that exemplified the long reach of the Mossad in its heyday.

In September 1986 -- even before the Sunday Times had published Vanunu's account of activity at the Dimona nuclear facility, together with photographs of a sophisticated below-ground research complex -- he was tracked to London by Israeli intelligence. There a female operative code-named "Cindy" seduced the former nuclear technician and talked him into traveling with her to Rome. Lured to an apartment that he thought was a borrowed love nest, Vanunu was jumped, drugged and bundled onto a boat bound for Israel.

With Vanunu's release, Israeli authorities -- fearing he might make new disclosures about the country's nuclear program -- have imposed tight restrictions on his movement and contacts, which his lawyers and civil rights advocates are appealing.

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