On Tuesday, February 19, in the latest revelations on the shocking story of Ben Zygier, also known as “Prisoner X”, Israel issued denials that the Australian Jewish immigrant turned Mossad agent had committed suicide in his jail cell in 2010 because he spied for his native country.
In an Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) television expose that ran last week, it was disclosed that a dense cloak of secrecy shrouded the death of Zygier, 34, originally from Melbourne.
In a statement issued by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office with the intent of quashing any potential diplomatic repercussions between Israel and Australia, it said, “Following many reports, the prime minister’s office emphasizes that Mr. Zygier had no connection to the Australian security services and organizations.”
The statement emphasized that Israel and Australia shared “excellent cooperation, full coordination and full transparency in dealing with the issues on the agenda”.
Zygier was held under an alias to stem serious harm to national interests, Israel says, but has not given any other details. Last Wednesday, Israel’s Justice Ministry confirmed that Zygier was being held for “security reasons” and imprisoned under a false name at a special high-security cell in the Ayalon prison in Ramle that was once used to house Yigal Amir, the assassin of Yitzchak Rabin. They said Zygier was under 24 hour surveillance.
Subsequent to Zygier’s death, the statement said that the president of the Rishon Letzion Magistrate’s Court had ordered a complete investigation of the cause of death. Most recently, the court allowed the publication of the judge’s inquiry, completed two months ago, that said Zygier hanged himself in his cell.
The investigation showed the prisoner looped a wet sheet around his neck, tied it to the bars of a bathroom window in his cell and hanged himself, choking to death.
Israeli media reported the bathroom area was not covered, for privacy reasons, by closed-circuit television cameras that transmitted images from other parts of the isolation cell.
Ruling out foul play on the basis of medical and physical evidence, Judge Dafna Blatman-Kardai said entry to the cell was monitored by cameras and examination of their footage showed no one “intervened in causing the death of the deceased”.
She said his family – which has not commented publicly on the case – agreed with the findings.
“A small amount of sedative was found in his blood. There was no alcohol or drugs. This does not change my determination … about the cause of death,” a forensic medical expert was quoted as saying in the judge’s report.
Civil liberties groups and some lawmakers in Israel, protesting at the state censorship restricting local reporting on the case, have demanded to know whether Zygier’s rights were violated by his months of incarceration, isolated from other inmates, and whether his death could have been prevented.
Although the Justice Department statement did not indicate any further aspects of the case; citing national security considerations, they did say that Zygier’s family received immediate notification of his arrest, and that he was provided with legal counsel, including attorneys Ro’i Belcher, Moshe Mazur and Boaz Ben-Tzur.
In her report, the judge said there was prima facie evidence that the Prisons Authority had been negligent, noting that it had received special instructions on supervising the prisoner to prevent a possible suicide.
A Justice Ministry spokesman said state prosecutors would decide whether charges would be brought.
A source briefed on the affair told Reuters that Israel has since installed biometric detectors in the toilet stalls of high-risk prisoners, designed to summon guards within seconds should they stop breathing or display other signs of distress.
It has been reported that Avigdor Feldman, an Israeli lawyer who had been providing legal counsel to Zygier, had seen him shortly before his death. They discussed “grave charges” on which Zygier had been indicted, and the possibility of a plea bargain.
“I met with a balanced person … who was rationally weighing his legal options,” Feldman told Israeli television last week, adding Zygier had denied the charges against him.
“His interrogators told him he could expect lengthy jail time and be ostracized from his family and the Jewish community. There was no heart string they did not pull, and I suppose that ultimately brought about the tragic end,” he added.
Feldman declined to comment on an Israeli newspaper report that Zygier faced between 10-and-20 years in prison.
Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor on Saturday called Zygier’s death a “tragedy” but said his treatment was justified.
Israel’s denial of Zygier’s association with Australian intelligence comes on the heels of published reports that said he had conducted clandestine meetings with members of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, during four trips that he had made there, and that he had disclosed nuanced details about his missions within the Mossad.
In the immediate aftermath of the ABC report, Israel refused to comment on Zygier and ordered newspapers not to provide coverage.
It is believed that Zygier was one of three Israeli-Australian agents who took advantage of the Australian law that allows people to change their name every 12 months, and apply for a new passport each time. When Zygier’s body was returned to Australia, just weeks after the birth of his second daughter, it was under the name Ben Allen.
The thrust of the ABC report was the contention that the Mossad was particularly concerned that Zygier had revealed details of a complex mission in Italy, which involved setting up a fake electronics company and selling equipment to, among other, the Iranians. It is not clear to what extent the mission was a success, why Zygier decided to inform to Australian intelligence and how he got caught. The Australian government has been criticized for not providing sufficient support to Zygier when he was arrested, and has launched its own investigation into the affair.
Zygier was an enthusiastic Zionist who moved to Israel in the 1990s, after which he was recruited by the Mossad. The agency was eager to recruit those that had dual nationality, allowing them to travel freely on another country’s passport, without ever needing to identify themselves as Israeli.
Mossad used passports from several countries during an operation in early 2010 when a Hamas commander, Mahmoud Mabhouh, who acted as an arms trader for the group, was killed in a Dubai hotel. Details of several of the fake passports were made public, and learning that an Australian passport had been used, Canberra expelled an Israeli diplomat in protest.
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