Analysis: Democracy on ‘suicide watch’

The Israeli government has now released selected information about an investigation into the death in secret custody of an Australian-Israeli believed to have worked for the Mossad spy agency.

But Ben Zygier, found hanging in his cell in December 2010, is far from the only casualty of this alarming episode. Israel’s self-definition as a democracy with an independent judiciary is also taking a hit.

It was the Australian Broadcasting Corporation which brought Mr Zygier’s fate to light in a report aired last week after his very existence was blacked out in Israel for two years by a gagging order. That order was endorsed by Israel’s Supreme Court in 2011 after the Association for Civil Rights lodged an appeal against it behind closed doors. Thus it appears that the body meant to be the ultimate protector of the public’s right to know became complicit in the disappearance of an Israeli citizen.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Australian media reported on Monday that Mr Zygier, a 34-year-old father of two, told Australian intelligence about his activities in the Mossad before he was arrested. But on Tuesday night, premier Benjamin Netanyahu’s office issued a statement denying Mr Zygier had been in touch with Australian intelligence.

The big question remains what exactly did Mr Zygier, who came from a prominent Jewish family in Melbourne and moved to Israel in 2001, do to warrant secret solitary confinement. Avigdor Feldman, an Israeli lawyer who met him shortly before his death, said he had denied the charges against him, which the lawyer described as “serious”. Court orders still prevent him from being more specific.

Whatever the facts, for Israel the apparent failure of the judiciary to act as a check on the power of the security services is emerging as one of the major themes of this affair, which is so sensitive that members of the Knesset, who usually enjoy parliamentary immunity, have been warned to watch what they say by legal advisers.

While security considerations have always been paramount, many believe democracy has suffered as a result of this case. The much awaited release on Tuesday of parts of a December 2012 secret report by district judge Dafna Blatman-Kardai into Mr Zygier’s death has done nothing to clear the air.

The released sections said Mr Zygier had killed himself and that there had been negligence on the part of the Israel prisons service in letting that happen when he was in a special cell designed for suicide watch. But critics said the ten published pages out of a total of 22 left the toughest questions untouched, including whether Mr Zygier’s interrogators had driven him to kill himself, if that is what happened. Still, calls for an independent commission have not as yet gathered momentum.

• Ben Lynfield reports from Jerusalem for The Scotsman.