In 1986, a young Israeli man called Mordechai Vanunu followed his conscience and told the world that Israel had a nuclear weapons programme. He was convicted of espionage and treason and sentenced to 18 years in prison. After serving this (12 years of which were in solitary confinement), Vanunu was released. In April 2004, about 80 people from around the world went to welcome him out of prison. Unbelievably, upon his release Vanunu was made subject to severe restrictions, which forbade him many basic civil liberties (including his right to leave Israel, to speak to foreigners and foreign media) and restricted his travel within Israel.
Each year, around April 21, Vanunu receives a letter from the prime minister renewing these restrictions, and he starts, yet again, the process of appealing against them through the Israeli courts. Most recently, he has been charged with breaking the restrictions by talking to foreign media and sentenced to six months in prison; when he appealed, this was commuted to community service. On July 8, he will appear before an Israeli court regarding this service and his case.
Four years since leaving Ashkelon prison, and 22 years since he told the truth about Israeli nuclear weapons, Mordechai Vanunu lives in modest accommodation in East Jerusalem, unable to earn a living, unaware of what to do to gain his freedom, unable to leave Israel, left wondering if the Israeli security services will ever agree to let him leave the country. They say he is a threat to national security, but everyone knows that it is 22 years since Vanunu worked in the Dimona nuclear plant, and the nuclear industry has moved on. A well-known Israeli nuclear scientist has testified that Vanunu can know nothing about the contemporary industry after such a long period, yet Israeli security insists he is a risk to national security, and the Israeli courts and government refuse to let him go, thereby compounding an injustice, and breaking international laws.
Governments around the world have let Mordechai Vanunu down. They remain silent when they should be demanding that the Israeli government uphold its obligations under the universal declaration of human rights - according to article 13, everyone has the right to leave any country, including their own, and to return.
So will Vanunu remain in Israel until he dies, or can anything be done to secure his freedom? I believe his freedom now rests in the hands of the Israeli people themselves. Some years ago I asked a young Israeli friend why she though Israel was holding him. She replied, "because our government does not trust its own people" and she added "if the Israeli people demanded his release, it might be possible he would be free to leave Israel and get on with his life."
I don't know if she is right or wrong: I don't know the Israeli mind or politics well enough to guess. But what I do know is that in the Jewish faith and tradition, there is a great deal of emphasis put on justice and doing what is right. I can now only hope and pray that some Israeli voices will be raised to call for justice for Mordechai Vanunu, who has paid the high price of 22 years of his life for following his conscience. Whether you hate or love Mordechai Vanunu, you have got to admit that he has suffered enough: it's time to let him go.
Mairead Corrigan-Maguire founded the Northern Ireland Peace Movement (later renamed the Community of Peace People) and won the 1976 Nobel peace prize.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008