Israel urged to explain jail death of Australian

Israeli newspapers have grasped the chance to report on Ben Zygier after a press blackout. Picture: Contributed
Israeli newspapers have grasped the chance to report on Ben Zygier after a press blackout. Picture: Contributed
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Calls are mounting in Israel for the government to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding the death of an Australian-Israeli man reportedly working for the Mossad espionage agency who was secretly incarcerated and then found hanged in his cell in 2010.

Israeli TV, radio and websites all led yesterday on an Australian Broadcasting Corporation investigative report aired on Tuesday into the death of Ben Zygier, 34, after the military censor belatedly permitted them to do so. But authorities still imposed a gag order on details of the case, which human rights groups suspect is a breach on international prohibitions against “disappearing” people.

The revelations promise to focus unwelcome attention on how the Israeli intelligence services exploit the dual nationality and foreign passports of Jewish immigrants to the country. It also raises the question of how a young man who moved to Israel and served in its military ended up in solitary confinement, apparently for treason.

Zygier moved to Israel from Melbourne, Australia in 2001, taking the Israeli name Ben Alon. He is also named as Ben Allen in an Australian passport obtained by ABC.

The channel reported how Israel kept the case under wraps for close to three years. And Australian media reported yesterday that Zygier – who married an Israeli and had two children – was under investigation by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation on suspicion he had used his Australian passport while working for Mossad.

The big mysteries are what went wrong in his Mossad service and what is Israel trying to hide. The Israeli news agency Ynet reported in June 2010 that an unidentified person called “Prisoner X” was being held in an Israeli prison, and in December 2010 revealed that a mystery prisoner committed suicide while in solitary confinement.

Both reports were removed at the request of the authorities. On Tuesday, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office convened a meeting of Israeli media editors and urged them not to pick up the ABC report, citing concern it would embarrass a government agency. Avigdor Lieberman, a close political ally of Mr Netanyahu said those asking questions about it “are attempting to harm state security”.

But some Israelis are angry at what they see as a cover-up. Dan Yakir, legal counsel for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) told The Scotsman: “There is a grave concern that there was a disappearance of a person under complete secrecy, and most disturbingly that in a protected cell he was found dead.”

Zygier was kept in Ayalon Prison in Ramle, in a cell with advanced surveillance equipment. It had been designed to hold Yigal Amir, the assassin of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, according to ABC.

The ACRI sent an urgent letter yesterday to the Israeli government’s attorney-general calling for the lifting of the gag order.

In the Knesset, MP Nitzan Horovitz, from the liberal Meretz party, said that in 2010 he had written to government officials after hearing of the “secret and unsupervised” incarceration of a prisoner, but interior minister Eli Yishai had dismissed the question, saying: “I do not know of any more democratic country in the world than Israel.”

Officials in the prime minister’s office and foreign ministry continued to decline to comment on the case. The internal security minister, Yitzhak Aharanovich, cancelled a planned appearance before legislators, apparently out of concern he would be asked about the case.

Meanwhile, Australian foreign minister Bob Carr yesterday revealed government officials knew in 2010 that Allen/Zygier was detained, contradicting an earlier statement that officials only knew this after he died. Mr Carr ordered a review of the handling of the consular case.

The Australian newspaper reported that Zygier came from a prominent Jewish family in Melbourne, studied law at the University of Melbourne and trained as a lawyer. It added he served in the Israeli military.