Comment: Why is Israel stopping Mordechai Vanunu coming to London?

By Allan Hogarth

Who is afraid of Mordechai Vanunu, the former nuclear technician who blew the whistle on Israel’s secret nuclear programme in the 1980s and spent the next three decades being punished for it?

The answer, strangely enough, is 'no-one'. So why is the Israeli interior minister blocking Vanunu's intended trip to London this month to address parliamentarians about whistle-blowing?

Why, indeed.

For the past ten years Vanunu has been under a swingeing travel and freedom of speech ban. Though released from jail in 2004 (after serving every day of an 18-year sentence, including over a decade in solitary confinement), he's persona non grata in Israel yet unable to leave it. He's prohibited from entering embassies or consulates In Israel, may not go within 500 metres of an international border, airport or harbour, and is forbidden from communicating with foreign nationals (including journalists) without obtaining official permission from the Israeli authorities.

What makes this supposedly 'free' man in a 'free' country such a threat?

The Israeli authorities publicly insist that Vanunu is somehow still a security threat to the state of Israel because … well, because he worked at Israel's nuclear facility near Dimona in southern Israel nearly 30 years ago and has previously disclosed information about the facility.

How is this credible? Vanunu has repeatedly insisted that he told the Sunday Times' reporter Peter Hounam all he knew about Israeli nukes back in 1986. He's always said he doesn't have anything else in the locker and has no further interest in pretending that he does. And has nuclear weapons technology meanwhile moved on so little in 30 years that he could realistically still possess information of serious value in 2014?
Instead, the muzzling of Vanunu seems to be about revenge. Pinning him down in a country he's desperate to leave looks like a vindictive vendetta, not a legitimate security concern.

Over 50 MPs and peers – including Jack Straw, Baroness Kinnock and Lord Steele – have been seeking to expose this cruel extended punishment by inviting him to speak in parliament later this month on the theme of whistle-blowing. And Vanunu's lawyers are once again petitioning Israel's supreme court to release Vanunu from these restrictions. A decision could be made next week. He may still make it to London.  

The extremely punitive treatment meted out to Vanunu is a clear precursor to what’s happened to today's much more famous whistle-blowers, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. Manning's massive 35-year sentence has dwarfed even Vanunu's 18 years' of jail time, while Snowden's temporary asylum in Russia is a sort of parallel to Vanunu's travel ban, with the American unable to go almost anywhere in the world without the risk of being arrested by the FBI.

So who's afraid of Mordechai Vanunu? Again – no-one if it’s about nuclear secrets.

It's not – ahem – rocket science, is it? Isn't it clear that Vanunu is still being published to deter the others? The would-be Vanunus, Snowdens and Mannings. We need to blow the whistle on this.

Allan Hogarth is Amnesty International UK’s head of policy and government affairs

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.