Israel confirms suicide of prisoner under fake name

Further details emerge on Prisoner X in Justice Ministry statement, which does not mention a name or whether he worked for Mossad.

Ben Zygier at his wedding 370 (photo credit: ABC Screenshot)
Ben Zygier at his wedding 370
(photo credit: ABC Screenshot)
Following an explosive Australian ABC news report Tuesday that a dual Australian- Israeli citizen and Mossad agent committed suicide in an Israeli prison in 2010, Israel confirmed on Wednesday – without giving his name – that a dual national did indeed take his own life while in custody.
The Australian report identified the man as 34-year-old Ben Zygier from Melbourne.
The Justice Ministry issued a statement saying that the Prisons Service had held the dual-national and had, for security reasons, imprisoned him under a false name.
According to the statement, the family received immediate notification of his arrest, and he was represented throughout by three lawyers: Ro’i Belcher, Moshe Mazur and Boaz Ben-Tzur.
According to the statement, the prisoner was held under the authority of a court order, and his case was followed by the most senior officials in the Justice Ministry.
“The individual rights of the prisoner were maintained, in accordance with the law,” the statement read.
The statement said the prisoner was found dead in his cell about two years ago, and the president of the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court had ordered an investigation into the cause of death.
A month and a half ago, the investigation ruled that the death was the result of suicide, and the file was passed on to the State Attorney’s Office for examination of possible negligence.
The ABC news report said he was held in a special high-security cell in Ramle’s Ayalon Prison that was once used to house Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin Yigal Amir, and was under constant surveillance.
The statement said that no further aspects of the case could be published because of national security considerations.
Jerusalem, meanwhile, is not anticipating that the incident will create any diplomatic tension with Canberra.
One official pointed out that on Wednesday, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr ordered a review of his ministry’s handling of the case. The official said he was not aware of any Australian demands for explanations from Jerusalem on the matter, and the impression was that the Australian officials were aware of Zygier’s arrest, incarceration and death.
The Australian media reported that Carr corrected earlier claims he had made in regard to the embassy in Tel Aviv not knowing anything about the case until Zygier’s family, which is prominent in the Melbourne Jewish community, asked that his body be brought home for burial. The reversal came after the government admitted that an Australian diplomat knew Zygier was being held in prison, but had not passed the information on to Canberra.
A spokesman for Carr told the Australian Associated Press that “some officers of the department were in fact aware of his detention,” according to a report in The Australian. The newspaper noted that some Australian diplomatic personnel were aware of Zygier’s incarceration in Israel.
Ambassador to Australia Yuval Rotem met with Australian deputy opposition leader Julie Bishop on Wednesday for a prearranged meeting during which the “Zygier Affair” was raised.
One Israeli official said the concern in Jerusalem was less over a diplomatic incident with Canberra, and more as to how this would tarnish Israel’s image and cast it in a negative light as a country where prisoners “disappear.”
There was also some concern that the matter could become an issue in the current Australian election campaign.
The ABC report named Zygier as “Prisoner X,” saying he had been jailed for unknown reasons in early 2010, a decade after he moved to Israel and years after being recruited by the Mossad. The report also said that Zygier’s detention has been one of the most closely guarded secrets in Israel in recent years, one that the Israeli government had tried relentlessly to cover up.
Multiple Australian media outlets are reporting that Zygier, married to an Israeli woman and the father of two children, had been under investigation in his native land at the time of his death.
According to Fairfax Media, which owns the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) suspected Zygier of using his Australian passport to conduct espionage for Israel.
The Sydney Morning Herald said Wednesday that in early 2010, a Fairfax Media reporter had confronted Zygier, who was known in Israel as Ben Alon, about his activities for the Mossad. Zygier had angrily denied the allegations, the report said, calling them “total bullshit.”
The Age reported Wednesday that Fairfax Media spoke to Zygier after learning that the ASIO was investigating at least three dual Australian-Israelis for using their foreign nationality as a cover for espionage activity.
The report said that in each case the men used new passports, with changed names, to travel to Iran, Syria and Lebanon. Zygier, in addition to the name Ben Alon, also used the names Ben Allen and Benjamin Burrows, according to the report.
According to The Age report, the investigation predates the assassination of Mahmoud al- Mabhouh, the Hamas operative killed in Dubai in January 2010 in what is widely believed to have been a Mossad hit. Israel drew intense criticism from Australia and Britain for the suspected use of their passports in the operation. Zygier and his two fellow Australians were not suspected in the Mabhouh operation, the report said.
The Age reported that it was believed Zygier traveled back to Australia in 2009 to study for an MBA at Monash University.
According to the paper, “a source at the time observed him over several days sitting with a group of students from Saudi Arabia and Iran at the university’s Caulfield campus.”
According to the JTA, Zygier attended the King David and Bialik College Jewish day schools in Melbourne; was a member of Hashomer Hatza’ir; attended the Machon leadership program in Jerusalem; and lived for some time at Kibbutz Gazit.
Channel 2 reported that Zygier had a law degree and clerked at the Tel Aviv office of Herzog, Fox & Neeman, the prestigious firm at which Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman was a founding partner.
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.