The Australian who apparently killed himself in an Israeli prison was considering a plea bargain for being a double agent, lawyer says. Kathy Marks reports from Sydney
Israel's 'Prisoner X' gave no sign of suicidal tendencies
SYDNEY // Ben Zygier, the dual Australian-Israeli citizen and suspected Mossad spy long known only as "Prisoner X", seemed to be in a healthy frame of mind the day before he apparently hanged himself in an Israeli prison, one of his lawyers said yesterday.
The revelation came as Canberra faced renewed pressure to explain its apparent failure to safeguard the welfare of an Australian detained abroad.
One of Zygier's lawyers, Avigdor Feldman, told Israel's Channel Ten TV station yesterday that his client - or "Prisoner X", as he was known before his identity was revealed in an Australian television documentary on Tuesday - had been considering a plea bargain offered by Israeli prosecutors.
"I met with a balanced person ... who was rationally weighing his legal options," Mr Feldman said. His client, who was arrested on suspicion of treason, had rejected the "serious" charges, he added, but gave no further details. Australian and Israeli media have speculated that Zygier was accused of turning double agent, or of selling Israeli secrets to Iran.
"His interrogators told him he could expect lengthy jail time and be ostracised from his family and the Jewish community," Mr Feldman said. "There was no heartstring they did not pull, and I suppose that ultimately brought about the tragic end."
Australian media also reported that Zygier had been one of at least three dual citizens suspected of using their Australian passports to travel to Lebanon, Syria and Iran on assignment for Mossad.
The Zygier case has strained relations between Israel and Australia, which had a diplomatic spat in 2010 after Australia learnt that a Mossad team that assassinated a senior Hamas commander, Mahmoud Al Mabhouh, in a Dubai hotel room were carrying fake passports in the names of four Australians resident in Israel.
While there is no evidence of a link between the two affairs, Australian media have noted how their timelines coincided. Al Mabhouh was killed in January 2010, drugged and suffocated with a pillow in the five-star Al Bustan Rotana Hotel, according to Dubai police.
Zygier, who was from Melbourne, where his parents are respected Jewish community leaders, was arrested in February that year. In March it emerged that Al Mabhouh's assassins had used passports forged in the names of nationals from Britain, Ireland, France and Germany, as well as Australia.
A series of expulsions of Israeli diplomats followed. In December, Zygier was found dead in his isolation cell at the Ayalon Prison in the city of Ramla.
Until this week, all details of the Zygier case had been suppressed by an Israeli court order, although brief mentions of a "Prisoner X" had appeared on the Ynet news website before being swiftly removed by military censors. The order was partially relaxed after the documentary aired on Australia's ABC, but Israel has not explained how Zygier managed to kill himself while under 24-hour surveillance.
Israel's justice ministry said yesterday that an inquiry had been ordered into possible negligence.
Fairfax Media reported that before Zygier's arrest he and other dual nationals were being investigated by Australia's domestic intelligence agency, ASIO, whose suspicions were aroused by them requesting new passports in Anglo-Australian names after emigrating to Israel.
Zygier, believed to have been recruited by Mossad, reportedly went by the names Ben Allen, Ben Alon and Benjamin Burrows. He and the others, according to Fairfax, used their new passports to travel to Middle Eastern countries that bar Israelis and anyone with an Israeli stamp in their passport.
The ASIO investigation began at least six months before the assassination of Al Mabhouh, according to Fairfax, which said Zygier was questioned in 2009.
It was "through intelligence channels" that Australia's department of foreign affairs learnt in February 2010 of Zygier's arrest, the foreign minister, Bob Carr, said yesterday. He added that it was unclear whether the information was passed to his predecessor, Stephen Smith, or to the prime minister at the time, Kevin Rudd.
Mr Carr, who has ordered an inquiry into the handling of the case, told a parliamentary committee that officials had sought and received assurances from Israel that Zygier's legal and human rights would be respected. Neither he nor his family had sought Australian consular assistance.
An opposition senator, Helen Kroger, said it was "a disgrace that no one from the prime minister down can shed any light on the tragic death of an Australian citizen abroad".
Christine Milne, leader of the Australian Greens, asked why the government had handed over "the welfare of one of our citizens to the spooks".
Zygier's family has declined to comment. A family friend, Henry Greener, said that his mother had "completely hidden herself away in ... grief". He called for justice for Zygier, saying everyone had known "there was something suspicious about Ben's death".