RAMALLAH // Benjamin Netanyahu today defended Israel's security services and judicial system against criticism over secrecy imposed on the imprisonment and apparent suicide in jail two years ago of an alleged Mossad agent with dual Australian-Israeli citizenship.
In his first remarks on the Prisoner X scandal that grabbed international headlines last week, the Israeli prime minister touted his country's democratic credentials and insisted its security agencies "act under the full supervision of the legal authorities, which are completely independent".
"We are an exemplary democratic state and we protect the rights of the interrogated and individual rights no less than any other country," Mr Netanyahu said during his weekly cabinet meeting, warning that exposures of Israel's intelligence activities could "badly damage" its security.
Authorities have used court gag orders, military censorship and direct requests to news editors to silence local media after an Australia Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) expose last Tuesday identified Prisoner X as Ben Zygier, a 34-year-old Australian suspected of spying for Israel, who also used the names Ben Alon, Ben Allan and Banjamin Burrows. He reportedly hanged himself in a prison in the Israeli city of Ramla in December 2010 despite being under constant surveillance in an isolation cell.
The gag order prevented Israeli media from reporting on the ABC report of Zygier's death for 24 hours. On the day of the report, Mr Netanyahu called meetings with representatives of Israeli media outlets to urge them not to publish information on the issue. The Israeli leader warned them that doing so would "embarrass a government agency", Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported yesterday.
The mystery surrounding Zygier's demise has strained Israel's relations with Canberra. Bob Carr, Australia's foreign minister, yesterday said his government had asked Israel to cooperate in an internal investigation he announced on Wednesday.
"We have asked the Israeli government for a contribution to that report," Mr Carr told reporters. "We want to give them an opportunity to submit to us an explanation of how this tragic death came about."
Before his arrest in Israel in early 2010, Zygier may have been trying to expose Israel's use of Australian passports during espionage operation abroad, the Brisbane Times reported on Friday. It cited unnamed Australian security officials as learning about Zygier's arrest just after Dubai police revealed that Australian passports had been used by three suspects in the assassination of Mahmoud Al Mabhouh, a senior Hamas official, in the emirate in January 2010 that was suspected to have been carried out by Mossad agents.
Israel has neither confirmed nor denied involvement in Mabhouh's death.
Israeli press reported yesterday that the justice ministry was considering whether to allow publication of the inquest into Zygier's death that rendered a verdict of suicide.
According to the Maariv newspaper, parts of the report were likely to be published later this week after the attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, decides which parts are to be redacted for security reasons, in conjunction with Mossad and the military censor.
Senior legal officials are also examining whether there should be any negligence charges levelled over Zygier's death in a ruling expected in the coming weeks, the paper said.
"It was a failure. We failed to protect his life," a senior official in the Israel Prisons Service told the paper.
He said the assumption was that Zygier had hanged himself with a shirt in the bathroom of his cell, the one area not monitored by security cameras.
* Additional reporting by the Associated Press, Bloomberg News and Agence France-Presse