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Mordechai Vanunu, a nuclear technician serving an 18-year jail term for blowing the whistle on Israel's secret nuclear weapons programme, was among six individuals honoured as "free expression champions" by Index on Censorship last week.

At an award ceremony in London, Index on Censorship presented its 2004 Special Award for Most Courageous Defence of Free Expression to Meir Vanunu, who accepted it on his brother's behalf.

"This is an important award to a man whose actions are based on the issue of censorship on the nuclear issue and censorship of what has happened to him for the last eighteen years," said Meir.

"I informed Mordechai of the award and he was very pleased and wished he could ... receive the award himself. Sadly, instead he is now back in solitary confinement."

In 1986, Vanunu was kidnapped, tried secretly and sentenced to 18 years in jail for revealing details of Israel's secret nuclear weapons programme to a "Sunday Times" reporter. At the time, he was working as a nuclear technician at a top secret nuclear weapons plant in Dimona.

Meir says the Israeli government silenced Vanunu to avoid political embarrassment for itself and the United States. If Israel openly admitted to running a nuclear weapons programme, the U.S. would be obligated to abide by the Foreign Assistance Act, which forbids it from giving military aid to countries who secretly acquire nuclear weapons, notes Index on Censorship. Israel is the largest beneficiary of U.S. military aid.

While Vanunu is due for release in April 2004, hardliners in the Israeli government want to have his jail sentence extended or have severe restrictions placed on his movements, says Index on Censorship.

Vanunu was not the only whistleblower honoured for defending free expression. Index on Censorship gave its Whistleblower Award to Satyendra Kumar Dubey, an engineer killed in India's Bihar province in November 2003 for calling attention to official corruption in major public construction projects, including a road he was involved in building.

A Music Award went to Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said, who passed away last year, and conductor Daniel Barenboim, in recognition of their efforts to promote unity and harmony between Israelis and Arabs. They founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, composed of Israeli and Arab musicians.

Other awardees included Iranian photographer Kaveh Golestan, who was killed in 2003 while covering the Iraq war, the South African film "Amandla," and the authors of "Slave," a book about a Sudanese woman's plight as a child slave.

Index on Censorship also awarded its Censor of the Year Award to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft for his promotion of the controversial USA Patriot Act. The Act invades privacy, denies due process, punishes dissent and gives the U.S. government the power to monitor its citizens' habits without telling them, says Index on Censorship. Ashcroft is urging Congress to approve amendments to the Act that will expand the government's powers to monitor individuals and detain suspected terrorists.

Index on Censorship annually gives out awards to individuals around the world in recognition of outstanding contributions to free speech, creativity and freedom of information.

Read more about Mordecai Vanunu's case:

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