OCCUPIED JERUSALEM/BEIRUT: Israel broke its official silence Wednesday over the reported suicide in prison of an Australian immigrant recruited to its spy service Mossad, giving limited details on a closely guarded case.
After appeals by local media chafing at Israeli censorship of a story broken by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, a district court near Tel Aviv allowed publication of six paragraphs of sanctioned text – a de-facto preliminary account by the state.
The text said that an Israeli with an unspecified dual nationality had been secretly imprisoned “out of security considerations,” only to be found dead in his cell two years ago in what was eventually ruled a suicide.
“The Israel Prisons Service held a prisoner who was an Israeli citizen and also held foreign citizenship. For security reasons the man was held under a false identity although his family was immediately informed of his arrest,” the Justice Ministry statement said.
The district court did not confirm or deny ABC’s unsourced findings that the dead man was 34-year-old Ben Zygier, an Australian who moved to Israel and may have been jailed in isolation over suspected misconduct while spying for Mossad.
“The prisoner was held in jail under a warrant issued by a court,” the statement said.
“Procedures regarding the prisoner were followed by the highest officials at the Justice Ministry, and the individual rights of the prisoner were retained, subject to the provisions of the law.”
Israeli media had earlier quoted the ABC and other foreign reports about Zygier, dubbed “Prisoner X,” some of which suggested he had been under investigation by Australia’s security services on suspicion of using his native passport for Mossad missions in countries hostile to the Jewish state.
The story first emerged in June 2010 when Israel’s Ynet news website briefly ran a story about a prisoner being held in top secret conditions whose identity and alleged crime were not even known to his jailers.
The story was quickly taken offline and a complete media blackout imposed, but it resurfaced Tuesday when ABC identified the mystery prisoner as an Australian national recruited by Israel’s shadowy spy agency.
With tight reporting restrictions in place, the Israeli media was initially silent on the affair.
What they did report was that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had Tuesday called an urgent meeting with top editors to ask them to cooperate by “withholding publication of information pertaining to an incident that is very embarrassing to a certain government agency,” Haaretz newspaper said, in a clear allusion to Mossad.
But shortly afterward, three MPs raised questions over the issue in parliament, effectively sidestepping the censor in a move which forced a slight easing of the reporting restrictions.
In its report, ABC said 34-year-old Zygier, a Jewish lawyer from Melbourne, moved to Israel in 2001 where he was known as Ben Alon.
Before his arrest in early 2010, it said, Zygier had been living in Israel for about 10 years and was married to an Israeli woman with whom he had two children.
ABC had no information on why he was arrested but said he was taken to Ayalon prison near Tel Aviv where he was held in virtual isolation.
In December of that year, Zygier was found hanged in his cell, despite the fact it was equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance systems to prevent suicide, it said.
Although the Israeli press can now quote foreign media on details of the case, the restrictions bar any original reporting on the incident, a spokesman for the censor’s office said.
A report by Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald said Zygier had been under investigation by Australian intelligence agency, ASIO. The newspaper said it had confronted Zygier over the investigation of at least three dual Australian-Israeli citizens who had emigrated to Israel in early 2010, but that Zygier had denied the allegations. The report cited unnamed sources who said the men had traveled to Australia separately to change their names and obtain new passports to travel to Iran, Syria and Lebanon.
In the ABC interview, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said Canberra only became aware of Zygier’s incarceration after his death and said he was troubled by the questions raised by the report. On Wednesday he confirmed he had ordered a review of the handling of the case.
The possibility that a Mossad officer had been treated so harshly drew comparisons to known previous cases when Israel jailed turncoat spies under blanket secrecy, sometimes lasting years.
Israeli intelligence veterans said such measures reduced the risk of enemy countries where the detainees had served learning of their true identities and then tracing their activities in order to expose other spies still under cover.
Mossad is reputed to have stepped up its shadow war in recent years against Iran’s nuclear program and Hezbollah.