An unrepentant Mordechai Vanunu – the Israeli whistleblower who confirmed the existence of the country’s nuclear weapons program – left Ashkelon’s Shikma Prison April 21 after serving an 18-year sentence, 11 years of it in solitary confinement.

He was greeted by an international gathering of supporters who ceremonially released 18 doves, one for each year of his sentence.

Just before leaving the prison, Vanunu held a brief, dramatic press conference in which he declared, “To all those calling me a traitor, I’m proud and happy to do what I did.” He said Israel did not “need the nuclear arms, when all the Middle East is free from nuclear weapons,” adding, “My message today to all the world is open [the] Dimona reactor for inspection.”

As he passed through the prison gates, the response shifted from flowers and doves to the angry threats of a hostile crowd outside.

Peace activists who welcomed him at a ceremony at St. George’s Anglican Catholic Cathedral in Jerusalem described Vanunu as looking fit and eagerly greeting supporters he had previously known only by name.

The former nuclear technician is planning to live in a Tel Aviv apartment complex, but supporters are expressing grave concerns for his safety, especially since Israeli authorities refuse to grant him any security protection.

Contending that Vanunu still has secrets to reveal, Israeli authorities have restricted his freedom, requiring him to register his residence and get permission before traveling to another city. He must remain in Israel at least one year, and is barred from discussing his work at Dimona with journalists. Vanunu himself has emphasized that he revealed all he knew 18 years ago.

In 1986 Vanunu made public the photos he had taken and information he gathered while a worker at the Dimona nuclear center, confirming the widespread assumption that Israel was a significant nuclear weapons power. Kidnapped by intelligence agents just before his interview with the Sunday Times of London appeared, he was convicted of espionage and treason.

In an April 24 article on Gush Shalom’s website, Israeli peace leader Uri Avnery probed the reasons for the seemingly absurd restrictions. “What can a technician know after 18 years in jail?” he wrote. “But gradually it becomes clear …Vanunu is in a position to expose the close partnership with the United States in the development of Israel’s nuclear arms. … The world must be prevented by all available means from hearing from the lips of a credible witness that the Americans are full partners in Israel’s nuclear arms program, while pretending to be the world’s sheriff for the prevention of nuclear proliferation.”

In an April 21 statement, the International Federation of Journalists protested the gag order against Vanunu, saying the protection of such whistleblowers is vital to free expression, and calling on Israel to recognize its responsibility to democracy by letting Vanunu return to society without further restrictions.

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