Clinging to an outdated concept in the age of leaks

Analysis: Recent revelations show that the government has broken its promise to provide transparency.

Ben Zygier 370 (photo credit: Courtesy ABC)
Ben Zygier 370
(photo credit: Courtesy ABC)
Following the episode of Mossad agent Ben Zygier, who committed suicide in his cell, it emerged Tuesday morning that legal and security authorities, under cover of court gag orders, continue to hold “Prisoners X” in jails.
These are the security prisoners held in solitary confinement, about whose actions the public cannot receive any information.
They are spoken of as prisoners who committed “security offenses,” which, according to the specifications of criminal law, are acts of espionage, contact with a foreign agent or treason. It is usually said that they worked in Israeli security bodies like the Mossad, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), or the Atomic Energy Commission, among others.
It should be noted that from the 1950s until 20 years ago, there were several Prisoners X in Israeli jails, all of whom were suspected of serious security offenses. Notorious among those held in the 1950s were killer and intelligence agent Mordechai Kedar, and another intelligence agent, Avri Elad, who received the nickname “The Third Man” for turning over his colleagues to the Jewish spy network in Egypt.
In the 1970s and ’80s, most of the Prisoners X in Israeli jails were there for acts of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union or Russia. Among the best-known was Prof.
Marcus Kleinberg, deputy director-general of the Biological Institute in Ness Ziona – one of the most secret scientific security institutions in the country, where foreign publications said Israel was developing biological and chemical weapons as well as means of counteracting them. Other such prisoners were Grisha Londin, Roman Weisfeld and Shmuel Makhtai.
These prisoners were placed in solitary cells far away from other prisoners, and under false names so that fellow inmates and the majority of the prison staff would not know their actual identities. They were forced to cooperate with authorities, because it was suggested to them that if they didn’t agree to do so, the conditions of their imprisonment would worsen and they would lose the few rights they still had – principally family visitations.
This practice came to light in the 1990s due to the efforts of Meretz MK Dadi Zucker, whose party was in the coalition at the time. Following several tours of the prisons by Knesset members, then-justice minister David Libai agreed to stop the practice, and prime minister Yitzhak Rabin authorized the move. The government mandated that in every similar case in the future, at the end of the judicial process, the state would convey a short message that a man was being held in prison secretly for security offenses, or would even release specific details about his identity.
It appears that the promise was kept for about a decade before it was broken.
The Zygier Affair was revealed following requests by media outlets Haaretz and Yediot Aharonot to publish the investigative report of Central Magistrate’s Court President Dafna Beltman Kardai, who investigated the circumstances of Zygier’s suicide.
From her investigative report, it arose that the deceased, an Australia native, had worked in the Mossad for five years, been secretly imprisoned in 2010 for security offenses, and been held in the “X cell” at Ayalon Prison. He committed suicide about 10-and-ahalf months after being imprisoned. The report concluded that the Prisons Service had been negligent in protecting his life, even though he was in solitary confinement, monitored by 10 security cameras that documented every moment of his life (except when he entered the bathroom connected to his cell, where he hung himself with a sheet in December 2010).
Mossad and Shin Bet lawyers did their best to prevent the publication of the Zygier Affair. Courts even issued orders against publication when he was still alive, and strictly prevented media outlets in Israel from mentioning details published in foreign media, even if they were inaccurate. Attempts by a few Israeli media outlets to have gag orders partially lifted hit a brick wall; the decision of Central District Court President Hila Gerstel ultimately quashed those attempts.
The blackout continued after Zygier’s death and remained intact for over two years, until an Australian television network revealed that a “Prisoner X” was being held in Israel for security offenses – a Mossad agent named Zygier. Despite the report, Mossad head Tamir Pardo attempted to delay the publication by a few days, but ultimately the dam burst and a flood of reports – both accurate and inaccurate – came through from every side.
Even so, the authorities dug in their heels and attempted to prevent the publication of the judge’s report. They decided to release it gradually. On Tuesday morning, following requests by media outlets, it was revealed that a similar prisoner was held concurrently with Zygier at the Ayalon Prison, under similar circumstances – that is, another man who transgressed Israeli law so seriously that he had to be placed in solitary confinement and the public had to be prevented from knowing any information about his existence.
It appears that the country’s legal and security authorities are refusing to learn their lesson and are continuing with their outdated idea that in the 21st century – the age of WikiLeaks, American whistleblower Edward Snowden, Internet access and smartphones – they will be able to control the flow of information.
It would be interesting to know if there are any more Prisoners X in Israel, and how many.
Translated by Josh Lipson.