Gag order shrouds arrest of U.K. journalist tied to Vanunu

27/05/2004 By Yossi Melman, Haaretz Correspondent, Haaretz Service, and AP U.K. Ambassador to Israel Simon McDonald has voiced concern to Israeli authorities over the Shin Bet seizure of Peter Hounam, the British journalist who broke technician Mordechai Vanunu’s account of Israel’s Dimona nuclear program, Israel Radio reported Thursday. Hounam, arrested Wednesday evening, has been covering the Vanunu affair for years and is considered to be one of the closest people to the nuclear whistle blower. He interviewed Vanunu some 20 years ago for the Sunday Times, in which the affair first appeared. British authorities have asked the police and Foreign Ministry for clarifications over the arrest, and have requested a consular visit to Hounam in custody, the radio said.

Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said Thursday that he was unaware of the facts of the case, but said he believed that „there was a possible violation here of the legal restrictions placed on Vanunu.” Since he completed his 18-year prison sentence for espionage earlier this year, Vanunu has been under a number of official restrictions, including a ban on speaking with foreign reporters on his former work as a nuclear technician in the Dimona nuclear reactor complex. Attorney Avigdor Feldman, who is representing Hounam, said Thursday that he had been denied access his client, and had petitioned the Jerusalem District Court to overrule the ban, Israel Radio reported. Feldman was quoted as saying that the prohibition, issued by the security forces, was for four days’ duration. The journalist was scheduled to meet in Ramat Gan late Wednesday with Yael Lotan, an activist in a committee that worked towards Vanunu’s release and against Israel’s nuclear program. When he failed to arrive at the meeting, Lotan found out that Hounam was under arrest. It was not clear whether Hounam was under full arrest or whether he was being held for questioning. The reason for his detention was also unclear. Steinitz said Thursday that „In general, the Shin Bet does not arrest people arbitrarily, but with considered judgement. I am not saying that the Shin Bet does not err at times, but it is generally a very responsible organization, and things like this are done after profound consideration.” „My assessment, and all of Mr. Hounan’s past and present behavior suggests this, that it is possible that there was a possible violation of the legal restrictions placed on Vanunu.” Referring to the restriction imposed on Vanunu follow his release, Steinitz told Israel Radio. „The idea that Vanunu was barred from being interviewed by the foreign media, as well as the indirect idea that he could be interviewed by an women Israeli interviewer, but for the BBC or the Sunday Times – this is an evasion that is a crime, and in these matters, the state of Israel certainly cannot agree to any evasion of the law or the restrictions.” BBC ‘very concerned’ over arrest A British Foreign Office spokeswoman in London early Thursday said that U.K. officials were notified of the arrest, and that the British consulate in Israel was looking into the matter. A BBC spokeswoman in London said the broadcaster was „very concerned” about Hounam’s arrest. The spokeswoman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, declined to answer any questions about Hounam, including where he was arrested and whether he had met with Vanunu since his release. Hounam arrived in Israel more than a month ago, ahead of Vanunu’s release. Vanunu was freed on April 21, after spending 18 years in jail for espionage and treason. Hounam was a member of the original Sunday Times team that interviewed Vanunu and then published his story in 1986. He left the paper several years ago and became a freelance reporter and also published books and produced films. Unlike the other members of the team, Hounam stayed in touch with Vanunu and was active in the public struggle for his release. Hounam visited Israel frequently over the past few months, and has been staying in a hotel in East Jerusalem for the past 6 weeks. During his stay, he has reported to the Sunday Times on Vanunu’s release and has been preparing a documentary on the affair for the BBC. He has also been in close contact with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), which is working to file a petition against the restrictions imposed on Vanunu by the defense establishment since his release. Among others, Hounam was banned from meeting Vanunu, who has been living in a church in East Jerusalem since his release. Hounam told Haaretz last week that he intended to return to Britain soon.