State Department rejects appeal for Vanunus freedom from jail

WASHINGTON — The Clinton administration has rejected requests from members of Congress to intervene in the case of Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli nuclear technician sentenced to 18 years in prison for disclosing details of Israel's nuclear program to a British newspaper in 1986.

Sam Day, a self-proclaimed "nuclear abolitionist" who started the U.S. Campaign to Free Mordechai Vanunu five years ago, spent nearly two months in Washington earlier this year to seek lawmakers' support for Vanunu's release.

Day, who was in Washington during January and March, said he stepped up his campaign after receiving reports from Vanunu's two brothers that the prisoner's mental health is deteriorating after spending more than 10 years in solitary confinement.

"He is literally climbing the walls," Day said recently from his home in Madison, Wis. "He is very paranoid."

Day's group, which he claimed has approximately 1,000 supporters, believes Vanunu, 42, acted out of conscience and served as a whistle-blower against nuclear proliferation.

"We think 10 years in solitary confinement is long enough," said Day, 70, a former editor of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

Vanunu, a Moroccan Jew who converted to Christianity, worked for nearly 10 years at Israel's secret nuclear installation at Dimona in the Negev Desert. A year after being fired, he provided the Sunday Times in Britain with details and photos of the nuclear facility. He was convicted of espionage and treason in 1988.

Sens. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) — each of whom are Jewish — asked in a March 3 letter to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright if the State Department "would be willing to look into this specific issue relating to Mr. Vanunu's mental health and raise this case, on those grounds, with the Israeli government."

Thirteen members of the House, led by Rep. Ronald Dellums (D-Oakland), went further. They asked President Clinton "to persuade the appropriate authorities in Israel to release Mr. Vanunu on humanitarian grounds."

In their March 25 letter to Clinton, the lawmakers said Vanunu's case has been championed by human rights groups such as Amnesty International and American religious, cultural and scientific leaders.

They added that American and British nuclear weapons experts have said Vanunu "has no further secrets to tell and that his release could in no way jeopardize the security" of Israel.

"We do not mean to imply endorsement of his actions," the lawmakers wrote, "but we believe he has suffered enough for what he sincerely believed to be an act of conscience."

The State Department, however, views the Vanunu case as "an Israeli domestic legal matter" and has no plans to get involved, said Barbara Larkin, assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs.

Responding to the Feingold-Wellstone letter, Larkin wrote that the United States "has no information suggesting that Israel's treatment of Mr. Vanunu involved cruel or inhuman treatment or punishment."

"Mr. Vanunu is an Israeli citizen who was tried and convicted of espionage and treason in Israel," Larkin wrote.

Gadi Baltiansky, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy here, said that if Vanunu needs medical treatment he will get it, and he can appeal his prison conditions with the courts.

But he said Vanunu's conditions are in accordance with the policies of the prison authority and approved by the court system.

He also dismissed as "ridiculous" the idea that Vanunu be swapped for Jonathan Pollard, the former Navy analyst serving a life sentence for spying on the United States on behalf of Israel.

Meanwhile, a Roman Catholic couple in St. Paul, Minn., has gone to juvenile court to seek permission to legally adopt Vanunu, the Jewish Forward reported.