Prague, 21 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Israeli nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu today was freed after serving an 18-year jail term for revealing Israel's nuclear secrets to the British media.
Vanunu waved and flashed "V-for-victory" signs as he walked through the gates of the Shikma prison in the coastal Israeli town of Ashkelon. Before a crowd of reporters, he defiantly proclaimed that he remained proud of his actions.
"To all those who are calling me a traitor, I am saying I am proud and happy to [have done] what I did."
"I say to the [Israeli security services], you didn't succeed to break me...you didn't succeed to make me crazy."
Vanunu in 1986 leaked pictures and details to Britain's "Sunday Times" of Israel's top-secret Dimona reactor, where he had worked.
The information shed light on Israel's official policy of "strategic ambiguity" -- neither confirming nor denying its nuclear capability.
The move infuriated Israel, which convicted Vanunu of treason in a secret trial after using a female secret agent to lure him from London to Rome, where he was abducted by security operatives and brought back to Israel.
Vanunu was sentenced to 18 years in jail -- much of it spent in solitary confinement.
Supporters and opponents gathered outside the prison to witness Vanunu's release. The 49-year-old former nuclear technician today described his treatment by Israeli security agents while in prison as "cruel and barbaric."
"I say to the [Israeli security services], you didn't succeed to break me...you didn't succeed to make me crazy," he said. "The [goal] of 18 years of isolation is to make me crazy."
Vanunu continues to insist that Israel should open Dimona for inspections. Israel is not a signatory to the UN's 1970 nonproliferation treaty, and is not obligated to open its reactor to inspections: "My message today to all the world is: Open the Dimona reactor for inspection. Call [International Atomic Energy Agency chief] Muhammad al-Baradei to come and inspect the Dimona reactor."
Working from Vanunu's 1986 disclosure, analysts estimate Israel has produced more than 100 nuclear weapons. Recent U.S. intelligence assessments reportedly put the number at around 80.
Vanunu today argued that Israel no longer needs nuclear weapons: "Israel doesn't need nuclear arms, especially now that all the Middle East is free from nuclear weapons. Iraq doesn't have nuclear weapons -- Libya, Iran, Egypt -- all the Middle East is free from nuclear weapons. Only Israel still has secrets."
Vanunu, a former Orthodox Jew who converted to Christianity in the 1980s, said he was mistreated because of his religion. He says he wants to leave Israel, where resentment against him is so strong that his family has expressed fears for his safety.
Vanunu, who was legally adopted by an American couple in 1997, has many supporters abroad who have lobbied to have him nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
His first stop after his release from prison was the St. George Anglican Church in Jerusalem's Old City. Arriving at the church, he was mobbed by clergy members and reporters, including Peter Hounam, the journalist who wrote the "Sunday Times" article leading to Vanunu's imprisonment.
The Israeli government remains deeply mistrustful of Vanunu. It has prohibited him from traveling abroad for a year, restricted his travel within Israel, and banned him from speaking to foreigners for the next six months.
Vanunu is also barred from discussing his work at the Dimona reactor.
Israeli Justice Minister Tommy Lapid told the Associated Press news agency that the restrictions were necessary because Vanunu is "hell-bent to do as much harm as he can."
But the one-time whistleblower said he has no more secrets to reveal, saying simply: "I am now ready to start my life."