JERUSALEM -- An Israeli court Thursday convicted former nuclear technician and self-described peace activist Mordechai Vanunu of being a traitor and a spy for blowing the whistle on Israel's closely guarded atomic secrets.
The three-judge panel that convicted Vanunu, 34, in its 60-page decision set Sunday for lawyers' arguments on sentencing in the case, which was shrouded in secrecy amid allegations of kidnapping and sexual intrigue.
The trial challenged the tight hold kept on its nuclear secrets by Israel, which never has said publicly whether it has nuclear weapons. The judges' arguments in deciding the case were kept secret. There are no jury trials in Israel for capital crimes.
Although the crimes carry a maximum sentence of death by hanging, chief prosecutor Uzi Hasson said outside court he will not seek the death penalty and instead will recommend a prison sentence.
Vanunu, who was whisked to and from the court out of public view, 'was disappointed (by the verdict), but he took it calmly,' defense lawyer Avigdor Feldman said. He said he would appeal the conviction.
Feldman, a leading civil rights attorney who said his client received a fair trial, expressed disappointment about his failure to have the court sessions opened to the public to serve as a debate 'on the moral issue of nuclear war.'
Nuclear war, he said, 'is a question that every society should struggle with. Either you are a traitor or you are not a traitor. The court said he was a traitor, and it was very disappointing.'
Both lawyers said Vanunu was convicted of three charges: aiding and abetting the enemy in time of war, gathering information with the intent to harm state security and disseminating information to harm state security.
Israel charged Vanunu harmed national security when he revealed details to the Sunday Times of London about what went on inside the government's top secret Dimona nuclear plant deep in the Negev. The facility was built by the French in 1957.
Vanunu, a Moroccan-born Jew who converted to Christianity, worked at the plant for 10 years before he was dismissed in October 1985.
He then left Israel and met with a Times reporter in Australia and Britain, providing photographs and details of the plant. His family and lawyers said Vanunu told them he acted because of a long-repressed opposition to Israeli nuclear policy and as a peace activitist.
The newspaper reported in October 1986 that, based on Vanunu's information, Israel secretly had manufactured 100 to 200 nuclear warheads to compile the world's sixth largest nuclear arsenal behind the United States, Soviet Union, Britain, France and China.
Israel long has been suspected of having the know-how to build nuclear weapons and is not a signatory to the 1968 Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty. Its leaders repeatedly have said Israel would not be the first nation in the Middle East to start a nuclear war.
The prosecution also also charged that Vanunu acted out of greed. Although he never collected payment, the state charged the Times was helping him arrange a lucrative publishing contract.
The judges announced the verdict in a closed session of the trial, which has been held entirely behind closed doors because prosecutors feared Vanunu would divulge more state secrets and further harm national security.
'I didn't expect he would be convicted of treason,' said Asher Vanunu, 26, one of the defendant's 10 brothers and sisters. 'He doesn't have the feeling to betray his country. The future will see if his country betrayed him.'
Vanunu disappeared in Britain shortly before the newspaper report was published. His family charged that Israeli Mossad espionage agents used a sexy operative named 'Cindy' to lure him to Rome, where he was drugged and taken to Israel against his will for trial.
Israeli officials disclosed in November 1986 that they had arrested Vanunu but disputed the family's account and refused to say how he had returned to Israel. Many anti-nuclear activists hailed Vanunu as a hero and several left-wing British parliament members nominated him for the Nobel Peace prize.
The verdict was returned amid tight security. Plainclothes police with Uzi sub-machine guns patrolled the East Jerusalem District Court compound. Vanunu arrived an hour before the verdict in a police van with covered windows and was slipped inside through a rear entrance.
Authorities adopted the security precautions at the start of the trial Aug. 30, apparently to avoid a repeat of an incident during pre-trial proceedings when Vanunu flashed a message scrawled on this hand that gave the date, time and flight number of the commercial airliner he claimed brought him back to Israel.