Scrutiny turns to Israel’s handling of ‘Prisoner X’ affair


JERUSALEM — The full story may never be known of why a baby-faced Australian-Israeli attorney came under suspicion of working for Mossad spy agency and then died alone in an Israeli jail cell charged with betraying the country he adopted.

But as the political drama over Ben Zygier’s 2010 arrest and death swept through Israel on Thursday, it left virtually no institution unscathed.

Mossad was scrambling to contain possible damage to its operations in Iran and other places where Zygier is believed to have traveled using his Australian passport.

The Prison Authority faced embarrassing questions over how a high-risk detainee could be found hanged to death in solitary confinement.

Courts were under fire for imposing an unusually broad gag order. The Israeli press was being criticized for missing the story. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was viewed as clumsily trying to suppress coverage in Israel even after the Australian Broadcasting Corp. on Tuesday aired a report about the case, sparking international attention.

Even some Knesset members were accused of circumventing the court’s gag order by publicly commenting on the case in parliament.

“The real loser in all of this is the public interest,” said Hagai El-Ad, executive director of Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

With Israel’s confirmation that one of its citizens, initially known in the media as “Prisoner X,” died of an apparent suicide in 2010 while in custody, scrutiny is turning to the government’s handling of the affair and the unsuccessful effort to keep it a secret.

Some are calling for the appointment of an independent inquiry commission, but given the sensitivity of the case, which Israeli officials say threatens national security, a public debate is unlikely.

New details emerged Thursday as a former attorney for Zygier confirmed that the 24-year-old former Israeli soldier was indicted for “grave crimes,” but appeared calm and rational during a meeting shortly before his death to discuss a possible plea agreement.

Attorney Avigdor Feldman told Israel’s Channel 10 that Zygier was under heavy pressure from Israeli interrogators who told him he faced a long prison sentence and ostracization by his family, including his wife and two children in Israel and prominent Jewish parents in Melbourne, where he grew up.

“There was no heartstring they did not pull, and I suppose that ultimately brought about the tragic end,” Feldman said.

The most immediate shockwave from the case is likely to hit Mossad, whose ongoing operations and operatives may have been put at risk when the story was exposed internationally, said former Mossad agent and security analyst Gad Shimron.

“Of course this will be damaging, ” he said.

If Zygier’s passport was used for travel to Iran, Syria and Lebanon — as Australian security officials have claimed to Australian media — security agencies in those countries are likely scouring their records, surveillance cameras and other databases for information about when he visited, what he did, who he met and who traveled with him.

“In the 21st century, with Google Earth, when cellular calls are recorded and security cameras are everywhere, information about one person can lead to a real cascade of spy networks,” Shimron said.

Israel learned a similar lesson during the Mossad’s alleged 2010 assassination of Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel room. Much of the operation was captured on surveillance cameras, enabling Dubai police to release more than two dozen pictures of suspected Israeli agents on the Internet, effectively blowing their cover.

A Kuwaiti newspaper Thursday claimed that Zygier, who also used the names Ben Allen, Ben Alon and Ben Burrows, took part in January 2010 Dubai operation and had offered to provide information to Dubai police when he was arrested by Israelis. The account could not be verified.

“I don’t envy anyone who had to deal with this matter,” Shimron said. “It’s an extraordinary case that shows the inner-conflict between democracy, which wants transparency, and the secret service, which wants everything in the dark.”

Critics say such secrecy is harder to achieve in today’s world of fast-spreading information. They say the Zygier case exposed the futility of Israel’s continuing use of military censorship and court-imposed gag orders to conceal information from the Israeli public, even after it has been exposed in other countries or on the Internet.

The gag order, which Israel’s military censor said Thursday had been approved by the Supreme Court, included a rare ban against Israeli media outlets even citing or publishing foreign news reports, including Web sites that any Israeli Internet user could find.

“The government used very old-fashioned ways of withholding the information,” said Tehilla Altshuler, head of the media reform project at the Israel Democracy Institute.

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Such bans might have worked a generation ago, critics say, but today they resemble efforts more common in dictatorships than in democracies.

“It’s not only out of date, it’s ineffective,” said civil rights activist El-Ad, whose group tried unsuccessfully to overturn the gag order. “It shouldn’t be that the last people who can read about something in Israel are Israelis themselves.”

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Though Israeli officials insist that Zygier received due process and legal representation, El-Ad said there are too many unanswered questions about his treatment, why he was kept in solitary confinement and how he managed to kill himself while in custody.

“It’s impossible to make an informed judgment because we don’t know,” he said. “If these issues were sufficiently debated it would negate the possibility that we will ever have another Prisoner X in this country.”

A national debate about the handling of such cases might be one of the only upsides for Israel, said Michael Partem, head of Movement for Quality Government, a watchdog group.

“Nothing that I’ve seen so far in this case sets off any alarm bells, but it’s legitimate to ask authorities about the procedures,” he said. “Even in the world of cloak and dagger, you need procedures.”

Yet Partem predicted that the Israeli public, which usually displays a high degree of trust in its security agencies, will give the government institutions the benefit of the doubt, particularly with the public’s recent focus on the economy and pocketbook issues.

“This seems to be such an exceptional case that I don’t think Joe Citizen will worry about it,” he said. “It’s not as if it’s about the price of cottage cheese.”