WHEN Israel's commitment to human rights is already under siege, the conviction of nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu in late March must trouble even some of its staunch supporters. Mr. Vanunu was sentenced to 18 years in prison for telling the Sunday Times of London that Israel was secretly manufacturing atomic bombs in the Negev Desert. In reaching this decision, the Israeli court chose to ignore that since Vanunu was kidnapped in Rome by the Mossad, he was illegally brought under their jurisdiction. It also overlooked that Vanunu had exposed a nuclear weapons program that proceeds in violation of international nonproliferation statutes and under false assurances to both the United States and Norway.
Twenty-seven Nobel prizewinners recently made an appeal to the Israeli court to show leniency toward Vanunu. More than 35 British and Australian parliamentarians have nominated Vanunu for the Nobel Peace Prize for publicizing Israel's questionable means to the questionable end of nuclear weapons capability.
Israel's nuclear plant at Dimona was secretly built by the French between 1957 and 1964. While Charles de Gaulle, then President of France, was telling the world that the plant was strictly for peaceful purposes, French scientists and engineers were helping Israel build an underground nuclear reactor that would escape detection by inspection teams of the US, Norway, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Between 1959 and 1963, Israel imported heavy water from the US and Norway, again under the pledge that this was solely for peaceful use, and on the condition that Israel would allow on-site inspection by the suppliers, as international agreements require.
The US has been notably lax in fulfilling its inspection responsibilities. Inspection of Dimona was discontinued in 1969. Even when 13 US senators were barred from Dimona in 1976, the US did not take issue with Israel. Norway, on the other hand, requested that Israel honor its pledge. On Sept. 30, 1987, Israel formally refused.
And exactly one year earlier, Israel had made a similar charade of international law by kidnapping Vanunu in Rome. This was clearly a violation of Italian sovereignty, for which Italy, at the very least, should have sought condemnation at the United Nations.
This is not the only aspect of the Vanunu case that has escaped censure. Even if we accept the Israeli government's premise that Vanunu was a traitor, the manner of his abduction, his imprisonment, and the trial are all violations of his rights. Since his kidnapping in Rome, Vanunu has been subjected to solitary confinement in a 6-by-9-foot cell. In lieu of sunlight, his cell has a fluorescent lamp that is switched off. Vanunu, originally a Moroccan Jew, converted to Christianity soon after he left Israel, and he has been diligently denied access to Christian clergy.
Worse still were the legal conditions under which Vanunu was tried. His appeals for an open trial were repeatedly turned down. There was no jury, and still there were restrictions upon the arguments his lawyer could present in court. The Guardian of London remarked that this all seemed rather extreme, especially since Vanunu had merely confirmed what the world had long suspected. The Israeli press has been prohibited from covering the case. It is precisely this attitude of ``no news about our nuclear weapons program is good policy'' that prompted Vanunu to go public with his information about Israel's underground bomb factory. He believed that Israeli citizens should have the right to know of their country's nuclear weapons and of the option to demonstrate and argue against such stockpiling if they so wished.
Vanunu's conviction on charges of treason and espionage seems especially unjust because Vanunu made his disclosures to a benign entity like the Sunday Times rather than an enemy like Iraq, whose Osiraq reactor Israel bombed in 1981. In seeking to publicize illegal covert acts by his government, Vanunu was no more guilty of treason than Daniel Ellsberg was when he gave the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times.
Right across this country, lawyers are making a more interesting defense for civilian nonviolent protest against nuclear arms: Some lawyers are invoking the authority of the 1945 Nuremberg Military Tribunal and its definition of ``inchoate crimes,'' which refer to the preparation to commit a crime against humanity. Clearly, every nuclear weapons program is an inchoate crime.
Francis Boyle, author of ``Defending Civil Resistance Under International Law,'' persuasively argues that a citizen's effort to impede or prevent these crimes is a reasonable response. Further, the Nuremberg judgments indicate that to resist a violation of international law, as Vanunu did, is a legal right, possibly even a duty. Happily for US citizens, some juries have already recognized their duty to apply international law in cases involving nonviolent protest against nuclear arms.
Mordechai Vanunu was less fortunate. He had no jury. Logically, an Israeli court would be a fitting authority to uphold the Nuremberg precedent that it is a citizen's duty to resist an unlawful government, particularly when it produces instruments of mass extermination. But Vanunu's three-judge panel seemed not to notice the irony of denying the validity of his defense.
Rahul Jacob, a free-lance writer, was a columnist for the Telegraph, one of India's leading dailies, until 1986.