Intrigue surrounds the death of ‘Prisoner X’

Alejandro Faini reports on the mystery surrounding the death of an Israeli spy in prison.

An Israeli Mossad agent, also known as ‘Prisoner X’ has been found to have hanged himself in a detention centre in Israel. 

The man identified as Ben Zygier, acquired the name ‘Prisoner X’ after the Israeli government held a gagging order on any details of his arrest or suicide. Mr Zygier was kidnapped by Israel from a hiding place and charged for treason in January 2010.

The Australian-Israeli citizen was allegedly responsible for leaking secret information to Australian Intelligence in the trips he undertook whilst working as a Mossad agent. According to reports, Mr Zygier shared information concerning plans for a top secret operation in Italy, as well as the existence of an electronic company set up to spy on Arab countries and Iran.

Mr Zygier has also been linked to the assassination of the Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh who was drugged and suffocated in his hotel room in Dubai during 2010. He allegedly looked for protection in the United Arab Emirates in exchange for information concerning the murder of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, but was kidnapped by Israel.

After the incarceration, the Israeli government did not acknowledge the existence of the prisoner and a gagging order was issued to prevent any information concerning the case to be published. This use of censorship was critiqued by the leader of the left-wing Meretz party, Zahava Gal-On: “When an unknown prisoners commits suicide and nobody knows who he is, how does that fit with a democracy with law which is proper?”

Criticism has also been received from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel who have asked for a reduction of the gagging order and questioned the necessity of the censorship.

However, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has labelled Israel as an “exemplary democracy” committed to the freedom of speech, and has argued that the secrecy of intelligence agencies is important to maintain state security.

The Israeli Parliament has stated last week that the ‘Knesset’ legislative branch of government will be in charge of the investigation, although the gag order is still in place regarding Prisoner X’s records. Under this ruling, all journalists have been gagged from talking about the case. In Israel they must sign an agreement which prohibits any military and security information from being published.

The case has resulted in perhaps one of the most difficult diplomatic issues between Australia and Israel due to the use of Australian passports by the Mossad agents who participated in the operation.

During Mr. Zygier’s activities,  Australian Intelligence had attempted to investigate the agent for suspicion of fraudulent and espionage use of his Australian passport. However, their request for more detailed information from the Israeli government has been rejected, even though it is clear that that the government and family knew about Zygier at the time.

The remains of Ben Zygier are now at the Chevra Kadisha Jewish cemetery, Melbourne, Australia.

Alejandro Faini