x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Australia orders probe into Israel's 'Prisoner X'

Australia orders inquiry into Israel's handling of the mysterious arrest and apparent suicide of an Australian prisoner who may have been working for the Mossad spy agency. Vita Bekker reports from Tel Aviv

The tombstone of Ben Zygier, known in Israel as Ben Alon, at the Chevra Kadisha Jewish Cemetery in Melbourne.
The tombstone of Ben Zygier, known in Israel as Ben Alon, at the Chevra Kadisha Jewish Cemetery in Melbourne.

TEL AVIV // Australia has ordered a review into Israel's handling of the mysterious arrest and apparent suicide of an Australian prisoner, who may have been working for the Mossad spy agency.

An Australian TV report revealed details in the case of "Prisoner X", raising questions about possible Israeli breaches of prisoners' rights and media freedom.

The man, identified as Ben Zygier, had been secretly jailed in Israel without an open court hearing, the unsourced report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Foreign Correspondentsaid.

Zygier was reported to have ties to Mossad and is believed to have killed himself in 2010 after months in prison. The case had been shrouded in mystery due to an unusually strict state gag on it.

The report has angered the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

"The most troubling issue is that a prisoner was held in total secrecy, disconnected from the world," said Dan Yakir, its chief legal counsel.

"If he committed suicide as ABC reported, how come he was successful when he was held under strict surveillance 24 hours a day?"

The association said yesterday that it had written a letter to the government demanding more details.

Talk of the imprisonment began in 2010, when the website of Israel's biggest newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, said a "Mr X" was being held in complete seclusion at the maximum-security Ayalon prison.

It reported that his identity was being kept so closely under wraps that it was not even known to prison guards or fellow inmates.

That story was taken off the site hours later because of a state gag order.

On Tuesday, bolstering the mystery, Israel issued a total blackout on any domestic press coverage of the Australian TV report.

It summoned top newspaper editors to request they refrain from publishing a story that "is very embarrassing to a certain government agency", the liberal Haaretz newspaper reported.

Yesterday, amid condemnation of the order, the censorship was eased.

The Australian report identified the prisoner as a 34-year-old Australian lawyer who had been part of Melbourne's Jewish community and had been recruited by Mossad.

After moving to Israel in 2001 he changed his name to Ben Alon, married an Israeli woman and had two children, it said.

After his arrest in early 2010, the man was found hanged in his solitary cell in December that year, despite the high-tech surveillance systems in his cell used to hinder suicide attempts, the report said.

It speculated that his arrest may have been tied to espionage or Israeli state secrets, and said his body was flown to Australia a week after his death and he was buried in a Melbourne cemetery.

Warren Reed, a former agent for Australia's overseas spy agency, said Mossad looked to recruit Australian Jews because they came from a clean country with a "good image" and might therefore not raise suspicion.

Bob Carr, Australian minister of foreign affairs, told the programme the government only knew of the imprisonment after the man's death.

But Mr Carr appeared to backtrack yesterday, with his spokeswoman saying several diplomats had been aware of the detention.

In the ABC report, Mr Carr also said he was troubled by the new details of the case and warned that spying for another country while using an Australian passport would "breach half a dozen laws".

It would not be the first time Israel jailed a person in secret. The most prominent past example is of Marcus Klingberg, the top-ranking Soviet spy caught by Israel.

Klingberg was jailed for two decades in 1983 for passing information about his research on biological and chemical weapons at a secret plant outside Tel Aviv. Israel kept his arrest and conviction a secret for the first decade of his imprisonment.

Israeli journalists yesterday condemned the country's initial bid to completely censor the "Prisoner X" story.

Typically, on major security-related stories such as Israel's attack on a Syrian arms complex in late January, Israeli media can report on the issue only after it is reported by foreign media, which they then cite as their source.

Veteran Israeli journalists have grown used to leaking stories to foreign correspondents just so can report on them within Israel.

Only rarely is Israeli media is banned from reporting on the story at all.

Aluf Benn, editor-in-chief of Haaretz, wrote yesterday in a scathing condemnation of the censorship: "For [Mossad head Tamir] Pardo, the Israeli media is an arm for exerting control."

He added that Israeli security authorities have a hard time "dealing with the idea of a free media in a democratic country and are trying recruit journalists to work for them".

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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