Court Lifts Gag Order on Mysterious Prisoner X

YERUSHALAYIM -

The District Court in Lod lifted the gag order on an investigation into the mysterious Prisoner X, an Australian citizen named Ben Zygier who allegedly took his life in an Israeli prison in 2010.

The story of Prisoner X first surfaced in May 2010 when Ynet ran a story alleging that a prisoner was being held in top-secret conditions, whose identity and crime were not known even to his jailers.

The story, however, was quickly taken offline due to a government gag order.

Renewed interest in the story was sparked Tuesday when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Foreign Correspondent program identified the prisoner as an Australian national from Melbourne who, it alleged, was recruited by the Mossad spy agency.

The Australian newspaper Sydney Morning Herald reported Wednesday that the Australian Foreign Ministry had acknowledged that its Embassy in Israel knew about the arrest of Zygier, contrary to what Foreign Minister Bob Carr said Tuesday.

Carr ordered a review into the handling of the death. “I’m not reluctant to seek an explanation from the Israeli government about what happened,” Carr told ABC News.

Within hours of the report on Zygier’s death surfacing, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office summoned the country’s editors to ask them not to publish a story “that is very embarrassing to a certain government agency,” Haaretz reported.

“The emergency meeting was called following a broadcast outside Israel regarding the incident in question,” Haaretz said. Shortly afterwards, all reference to the Australian report vanished from Israeli news sites — including Haaretz itself.

Such a gag order is highly unusual in Israel, where state military censors normally allow local media to quote foreign sources on controversial incidents — such as an alleged attack on Syria last month by the Israeli air force.

Meretz and Arab MKs asked Justice Minister Yaakov Ne’eman from the Knesset podium to confirm if the report was true and demanded to know if other prisoners were being held in secret.

“This matter is not within the jurisdiction of the Justice Ministry,” Ne’eman said. “But certainly, if this information is accurate, it is something that ought to be checked.”

Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman slammed the MKs — Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List), Dov Henin (Chadash) and Zehava Gal-On (Meretz) — for jeopardizing national security. “I understand that once again there was attempt to harm the security of the state,” Lieberman, a former foreign minister, told Army Radio.

“These people identify with the enemy,” Lieberman said. “Tibi supported Hizbullah and Hamas during Operation Pillar of Defense.”

Internal Security Minister Yitzchak Aharonovitch was due to speak at the Knesset yesterday but unexpectedly canceled his speech, in a move that many claim was due to the unfolding Prisoner X affair.

ABC said Zygier, who came from a prominent Jewish family in Australia, had moved to Israel 10 years before his death and had taken on the name Ben Alon. He married an Israeli woman and had two children.

The man’s family in Israel and Australia did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Zygier also carried an Australian passport in the name of Ben Allen, two foreign ministry officials said.

Foreign Minister Carr said that without a complaint from Zygier’s family, the government was unable to act.

ABC said Zygier’s imprisonment was so secret that not even his guards knew his name. However, word got out at the time that a mysterious prisoner was being held incognito, whereupon human rights groups wrote to the state to demand more information.

“It is insupportable that, in a democratic country, authorities can arrest people in complete secrecy and disappear them from public view, without the public’s even knowing such an arrest took place,” the Association for Civil Rights in Israel wrote in June 2010.

Zygier was allegedly held in Ayalon Prison near Tel Aviv and was found hanged in his cell in December 2010. Funeral notices from Australia show that his body was flown back to Melbourne and that he was buried on Dec. 22.

A former Australian intelligence official told ABC that the country’s domestic spy agency had for some time been watching Australian Jews suspected of working for the Mossad. Australia’s low international profile made them ideal recruits.

“Australians abroad are generally seen to be fairly innocent. It’s a clean country. It has a good image, like New Zealand,” said former overseas spy agency official Warren Reed.

Australia’s government complained to Israel in 2010 after faked Australian passports were used to stage the assassination in Dubai of a top Hamas operator and arms dealer.