Israel’s Mordechai Vanunu is as much a hero as Edward Snowden

Those who support the US whistleblower should back his Israeli predecessor in his bid for a new life abroad

‘The decision to restrict Mordechai Vanunu’s movements seems to be based more on a desire to inflict punishment on an unrepentant man than for security concerns.’ Photograph: Gil Cohen Magen/Reuters
Sunday 20 April 2014 19.45 BST Last modified on Friday 3 October 2014 14.03 BST
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Ten years ago today, a man emerged from prison to be greeted by a crowd of his supporters embracing him with carnations and a crowd of his enemies drawing their fingers across their throats. He had served 18 years in prison, 11 of them in solitary confinement.

The man was Mordechai Vanunu, the whistleblower who, in 1986, came to Britain to tell the Sunday Times the story of the then secret nuclear weapons facility at Dimona in Israel. Out alone in London and disillusioned with the length of time the story seemed to be taking to reach publication, he was lured by a woman from Mossad to Italy. There, he was kidnapped, drugged and smuggled out of the country to Israel, where he was convicted of espionage.

On his release from prison, he was led to believe that he would soon be free to leave the country where he is vilified and regarded as a traitor. When I interviewed him in Jerusalem six months later, back in 2004, he was still hopeful that, having served his time, he would be able to start a new life abroad. It has turned out to be an empty hope. Last December, he failed in the high court of justice in his latest bid to be allowed to leave. Does Edward Snowden, as he adjusts to life in Moscow, wonder whether he will still be haunted and hunted by the US government for decades to come?

No one seriously claims that the man who was exhaustively debriefed by the Sunday Times nearly 30 years ago has any secrets up his sleeve. The decision to restrict his movements seems to be based more on a desire to inflict punishment on an unrepentant man than for security concerns. A pacifist who has urged the Palestinians to pursue their aims by non-violent means, he was not a spy but was driven to his actions by a horror of Hiroshima and the possibility of a nuclear war in the Middle East.

Writing in Ha’aretz last year, Aluf Benn drew parallels between the cases of Vanunu and Snowden, who both “had junior positions in defence organisations, in which they were exposed to sensitive national secrets. Both became convinced their employers were responsible for immoral acts and decided to violate their oaths of secrecy and tell the world about them.” Benn suggested that “Israelis who support Snowden, and who see him as a freedom fighter who exposed the American empire in its hypocrisy and evil, need to relate to his Israeli predecessor in the same way”.

Vanunu has also been compared with another American who blew the whistle on what he regarded as his country’s immoral activities. Indeed he has often been described as the Israeli Daniel Ellsberg, to which the latter responds: “I can only say that I would be proud to be known as the American Vanunu, although my own possible sentence of 115 years for revealing state secrets [the Pentagon Papers] was averted by disclosure of government misconduct against me which pales next to the Israeli misconduct in assaulting, drugging and kidnapping Vanunu in the process of bringing him to trial, let alone the 11 years of solitary confinement he was forced to endure.”

The UK and the British media have a special responsibility towards Vanunu. He was persuaded to come to London on the understanding that he would be protected. The Sunday Times journalist with whom he worked most closely, Peter Hounam, later wrote in his book on the case, The Woman from Mossad, that “to most sane people he did something brave and altruistic”. The National Union of Journalists recognised its duty to whistleblowers who risk everything and made Vanunu an honorary member on his release from jail. The proprietor of the paper that brought him to England also has responsibility and one hopes that he, too, may yet give Vanunu the sort of backing that those in his direct employment have had when faced with legal action.

These are unforgiving times for people who want to expose what governments want kept secret. In Egypt, journalists from al-Jazeera are held in prison on baseless charges, and over the past few weeks we have also seen how the authorities in Iraq, Libya, Turkey, China and Syria – to name just a few of the worst offenders – deal with those involved in propagating uncomfortable truths.

As the US secretary of state, John Kerry, continues to encourage the release of Palestinian prisoners to further the Middle East peace process, how admirable it would be if someone who risked his life and sanity for the very purpose of peace was finally allowed to lead a normal life in the country of his choosing.