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More questions than answers about Prisoner X

January 23, 2014 at 6:04 pm

The basic facts of the “Prisoner X” case are like something out of a Kafka-esque nightmare. The man, also referred to as “Mr X”, was imprisoned in Ayalon Prison, a maximum security jail in Israel. His arrest was so shrouded in secrecy that even his guards did not know his identity or alleged offence. In 2010, ten months after his arrest, he hung himself in his cell.

The few media reports which surfaced at the time within Israel were quickly suppressed by a gagging order from Shin Bet, the domestic security service. The state did not even acknowledge that this prisoner had ever existed, and editors faced the risk of jail or heavy fines if they referred to the case. That all changed last week, more than two years after “Prisoner X” died in solitary confinement. On Tuesday, Australian news network ABC broadcast a story revealing the identity of this mysterious figure. Under media and political pressure, an Israeli court partially lifted the gag order.

He was Ben Zygier, a 34 year old dual national of Australia and Israel, who had allegedly been working for Israel’s infamous Mossad external spy agency. He had relocated to Israel at least a decade before his suicide, taking the name Ben Alon. He also used numerous other names and had several passports which he allegedly used for Mossad work in Europe and the Middle East. It has emerged that the Australian government were told of Zygier’s arrest in 2010.

The mysterious case has raised several issues. Firstly, why and how did Zygier commit suicide? The latest report broadcast by ABC, which aired this week, claims that Zygier’s crime was sharing details of his secret missions with the Australian intelligence services. According to ABC, Mossad became aware that Zygier had met with Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (Asio) agents and told them about operations, including one in Italy that had been in the works for years. He had applied for a work visa in Italy, and had reportedly set up a communications company in Italy for Mossad.

The accusation of leaking secrets explains why Zygier was imprisoned – but not why he was driven to suicide. His lawyer, Avigdor Feldman, stepped forward on Thursday 14th February, telling Israel’s Channel 10 that he had seen Zygier the day before his death and that he had appeared rational. Feldman speculated that the intense emotional pressure placed on Zygier during interrogations may have contributed to his suicide.

However, the basic practicalities of the suicide raise questions of their own. The Haaretz newspaper has published a detailed report about the cell, which it claims is 16 square metres in size, and under constant camera surveillance. Guards were ordered to report everything that happened in the cell, and in addition to these security cameras, it was inspected every hour. The shower area, separated from the rest of the cell by a transparent door that hides the inmate’s genitals, is monitored by a special system activated by breathing and body movements. If no movement is detected for a certain period, the camera in the bathroom is activated and the alarm is raised. The showerhead is also reportedly flexible, to prevent inmates from attempting to hang themselves. How Zygier was able to commit suicide under these conditions is unclear to say the least.

A second issue raised has been the use of Australian-Israeli dual nationals in spy missions, which has been the subject of much discussion in both countries since the news broke. Apparently Australians are favoured by Mossad because they don’t attract suspicion. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said that too much scrutiny of intelligence activities could “badly damage” state security. He urged the media and the public to back off: “I ask everyone: let the security forces continue to work quietly in order that we can carry on living in peace and security in Israel.”

Speculation will not quiet down any time soon, with many questions still unanswered and information slowly emerging in dribs and drabs. The Israeli Parliament has promised an “intensive” inquiry into Zygier’s arrest and death, but given the nature of the case – which will undoubtedly include aspects of national security – it is doubtful whether the full facts will ever be revealed. Governments across the world are highly secretive about the workings of their security services, and Israel is no exception. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has issued a statement saying that the very fact of an individual “disappearing” from society is not a characteristic of a democratic state. Indeed, this case highlights the lack of accountability in Israel. Netanyahu defended this, saying: “We are not like all other countries. We are more threatened, more challenged, and therefore we have to ensure the proper activity of our security forces.” As the country’s lively media debates the question of censorship, accountability, and the prison system, this case is not going anywhere.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.