There were demands last night for the release from prison of the man known as the Israeli nuclear whistleblower after it emerged he was being held in solitary confinement in the same section of prison as some of Israel's most notorious criminals.
Mordechai Vanunu, who spent 18 years in jail for revealing details of Israel's nuclear arsenal in 1986, was sent back to prison for three months in May after being found guilty of unauthorised meetings with foreign nationals. Vanunu, who became a cause celebre for human rights activists around the world and was elected rector of the University of Glasgow in absentia, is being held in Ayalon Prison in central Israel.
Amnesty International is calling for Vanunu's immediate release and his brother, Meir, contacted the Sunday Herald to express fears over Vanunu's wellbeing after being the first person to visit him in seven weeks.
In an email, Meir Vanunu said: "I found him to be all right in general, but it was a depressing experience. The disturbing main fact is he is held in the hardest prison section there is in all Israeli prisons. It has the most notorious criminals in the country, well known hard murder cases and so on. Of course, there is no justification for doing this to Mordechai and it is only a continuous vindictiveness and harassment by the secret services and not serving any so-called ‘security' interests."
The harsh conditions of the dangerous criminals unit in Ayalon Prison means Vanunu can leave his cell for only one hour every day to walk in the prison courtyard. He cannot make telephone calls unless he submits information to the prison authorities about the person he wishes to call - something he refuses to do on principle.
Meir added: "On one hand my impression was that of course his spirits are down, as a result of being put to such harsh, inhumane and cruel conditions, and on the other hand from his words I could feel he continues fighting this reality to keep well and hopeful and sees the day of his freedom coming in six weeks."
The Israeli Embassy in London said Vanunu had received a fair trial. A spokesman said: "When it comes to Israel, Amnesty International becomes politically motivated. Amnesty International campaigns for people around the world to receive fair trials and that is exactly what Vanunu got, so it is difficult to see their logic. We are a democracy with a fair legal procedure and a court made a fair ruling on the Vanunu case."
Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International's Middle East programme director, said: "Mordechai Vanunu should not be in prison, let alone be held in solitary confinement in a unit intended for violent criminals. He suffered immensely when he was held in solitary
confinement for 11 years after his imprisonment in 1986 and to return him to such conditions now is nothing less than cruel, inhuman or degrading."
Vanunu has strong support in Scotland and the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign has been vociferous in campaigning on his behalf.
In December 2004, Vanunu was elected rector of the University of Glasgow and in 2008 Glasgow City Council passed a motion calling for his release. First Minister Alex Salmond has also voiced support for him and shares his opposition to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Mick Napier, of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said: "After the Mavi Marmara [the Gaza-bound ferry raided by Israeli forces on May 31] massacre, when nine Turks were murdered at sea, it is clear Israel needs to be stripped of its nuclear weapons. Glasgow City Council has already passed a motion supporting the liberation of Vanunu and so it is a Scottish political issue."
After Vanunu, a former technician at Israel's Dimona nuclear plant, revealed details of the country's nuclear arsenal to the Sunday Times in 1986, he was subsequently abducted by Mossad agents in Italy and secretly taken to Israel, where he was tried and sentenced to 18 years, the first 11 of which he spent in solitary confinement.
In the mould of other famous political prisoners of conscience, such as Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi, Vanunu became a symbolic figure for human rights activists around the world who argued he had been persecuted by the Israeli government for merely alerting the international community to its growing nuclear stockpile in the most volatile region on earth.
Vanunu was released from prison on April 21, 2004. Since then the Israeli authorities have subjected him to police supervision under a military order, which is renewed every six months. Under the order, he is banned from communicating with foreigners, including journalists. He cannot leave the country and is forbidden from approaching foreign embassies. He must also inform the authorities if he wishes to change his address.
He was arrested in Jerusalem and charged with violating the conditions of his release three days after giving an interview to our sister paper The Herald in March 2005. He was arrested and charged with 21 violations of his parole by speaking with foreigners and of trying to leave Israel. Vanunu faced the possibility of a two-year sentence.
In April 2007 he was convicted of meeting foreigners, including journalists and his girlfriend, and was sentenced to six months. That was reduced to three months on appeal and he was given the option of community service in West Jerusalem. Vanunu said he feared being attacked and would only do the service in Arab East Jerusalem, where he lives. The court refused and jailed him on May 23 this year.
For years, Vanunu has been portrayed by some Israeli media and politicians as a traitor and an enemy of the state for disclosing Israeli efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Vanunu has twice said he has received death threats.
Israel's hardline attitude to Vanunu has been roundly condemned for years. His more famous supporters include Bishop Desmond Tutu, linguist and political thinker Noam Chomsky, and the late playwright Harold Pinter.