Australian found hanged ‘was facing serious charges’

Ben Zygier is thought to have worked for Israel's Mossad. Picture: Contributed
Ben Zygier is thought to have worked for Israel's Mossad. Picture: Contributed
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An AUSTRALIAN immigrant, reported to have been recruited by Israel’s Mossad spy agency, had been charged with serious crimes before he took his own life in an Israeli jail, one of his lawyers revealed yesterday.

The case has raised questions in Australia and Israel about the suspected use by Mossad of dual Australian-Israeli nationals and the circumstances behind the 2010 detention and death of 34-year-old Ben Zygier.

Israel on Wednesday broke its silence over an Australian Broadcasting Corporation report that said Zygier, who had moved to Israel, had been held in isolation over suspected misconduct while spying for Mossad.

Partially lifting a gagging order on the case, an Israeli court said a dual-nationality citizen had been imprisoned secretly under a false name for “security reasons” and found dead in his cell in what was eventually ruled a suicide.

Israeli lawyer Avigdor Feldman said he met the man, dubbed “Prisoner X”, a day before his death. “I met with a balanced person, given the tragic outcome, who was rationally weighing his legal options,” Mr Feldman said yesterday.

He said the detainee had been charged with “grave crimes” and that there were ongoing negotiations for a plea bargain. He did not elaborate on the allegations, which he said the prisoner denied. Reporting in Israel on the case is still subject to strict government censorship.

The Kuwaiti newspaper Al Jarida yesterday quoted unidentified western sources as saying Mr Zygier had taken part in the killing by a Mossad hit-team of Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mahbouh in Dubai in 2010.

It said Mr Zygier had offered Dubai information about the operation in return for the emirate’s protection.

Offering a different version, Australia’s Fairfax Media said Australian security officials suspected Zygier might have been about to disclose Israeli intelligence operations, including the use of fraudulent Australian passports, either to the Canberra government or to the media before his arrest.

“His interrogators told him he could expect lengthy jail time and to be ostracised from his family and the Jewish community,” Mr Feldman said. “There was no heart string they did not pull, and I suppose that ultimately brought about the tragic end.”

Mr Feldman appeared to inadvertently confirm the man was a Mossad spy. “The Mossad liaison I was in touch with informed me that, unfortunately, my client was no longer alive,” he said. Israel has neither denied nor confirmed that “Prisoner X” was a Mossad officer.

The suicide of Mr Zygier has focused attention on Mossad’s recruitment of foreign-born Jews who could spy under the cover of their native passports.

Australian media have reported that Mr Zygier had been one of at least three Australian-Israeli dual nationals under investigation by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation on suspicion of spying for Israel.

In an apparent reversal from previous statements, Australian foreign minister Bob Carr said yesterday that his ministry had known about Mr Zygier’s jailing in Israel as early as February 2010. On Wednesday, he said Australian diplomats in Israel had only found out about the detention after his death in custody later that year.

Australia complained to Israel in 2010 after Dubai said forged Australian passports had been used by the Mossad squad.

Authorities in Dubai said Mr Mahbouh’s killers also had British, Irish, French and German passports.

Mossad is widely reputed to have stepped up its shadow war against Iran’s nuclear programme, Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrillas, suspected nuclear procurement by Syria and arms smuggling to Palestinians through Dubai, Sudan and Egypt.