JERUSALEM (Mar. 24)
Mordechai Vanunu, charged with providing a British newspaper two years ago with top secret data about Israel’s nuclear weapons capability, was convicted of treason and espionage Thursday. His sentence will be pronounced Sunday.
The trial lasted more than a year in a Jerusalem district court closed to the press and public. But the three-judge panel reportedly took only a few minutes to reach a verdict.
Vanunu, 34, who once worked as a technician at Israel’s nuclear facility in Dimona, was found guilty of treason, two counts of grave espionage, assisting the enemy in its war against Israel and damaging state security. Each offense carries maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
Although the death penalty can also be applied, the prosecution is considered unlikely to request it.
Vanunu’s lawyer, Avigdor Feldman, said he would probably appeal the verdict to Israel’s Supreme Court. Speaking to reporters after the conviction was announced, he said the court had rejected all of the defense’s legal arguments that related to the “very complex issues of nuclear weapons.”
Feldman said Vanunu took the verdict calmly and was prepared to continue to fight for its reversal.
Vanunu’s brother, Asher, 26, said the family had not expected Mordechai “to be released today,” but had hoped he would be acquitted at least of the treason charge.
Vanunu provided detailed information and photographs of the Dimona plant to the Sunday Times of London in September 1986. A few days later he was reported missing.
According to his family, the defense and other sources, he was enticed to Rome on Sept. 30, 1986, by a woman working for Israeli intelligence. There he was kidnapped by agents of Mossad, Israel’s secret service, drugged and brought to Israel, where he was held in solitary confinement for weeks before the Israeli authorities admitted he was in Israel.
The Israelis insisted he came to Israel voluntarily. During the early stages of his trial, while being taken to court in a police van, Vanunu flashed a message to reporters indicating he had been kidnapped.
From that time, he was allowed no chance to contact the news media. On his frequent trips from prison to the court, he was forced to wear a motorcycle helmet covering his face, and the windows of the police van were blacked out. All demands that he be tried in open court were rejected.
Vanunu has a checkered personal history. Born to a religious family of Moroccan Jewish origin, he turned to the extreme right wing as a youth, reportedly joining Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach movement. Later he shifted to the far left and became a pacifist.
After ending his employment at Dimona, he went to Australia, where he converted to the Anglican faith. When he was charged with espionage, his family initially disowned him. But later they rallied to his support.
During the course of his trial, Vanunu drew much sympathy worldwide. In Amsterdam Thursday, a Protestant clergyman, Johan Snoek, urged the Dutch public to send Vanunu postcards of sympathy. He referred to the accused as a “prisoner of conscience.”
Last week, the Netherlands Council of Churches expressed concern over the treatment of Vanunu by the Israeli authorities. It asked Dutch Foreign Minister Hans van den Brock to convey the government’s official concern to Israel.
According to some experts, the information from Vanunu published in the Sunday Times of London indicated that Israel has a stockpile of nuclear weapons and is capable of building as many as 10 atomic bombs a year. If true, this would rank the Jewish state sixth among the world’s nuclear powers.
Israel has refused to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, but has insisted it will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East.
(Amsterdam correspondent Henrietta Boas contributed to this report.)