Mystery Death Strains Israeli-Australian Ties

CANBERRA, Australia - He was known as Prisoner X, his crimes unknown. For months he languished in an Israeli prison until he was he was found dead in his cell in an apparent suicide. Later, rumors would swirl that he was an Australian-Israeli who worked for the Israeli secret service Mossad.

The web of secrecy surrounding the man with at least three names - Ben Zygier, Ben Alon, and Ben Allen - is slowly lifting after Australia's public broadcaster revealed details of his case, unraveling the media blackout that the Israeli government had imposed for more than two years using military censorship laws. The report has also forced the Australian government to admit that it had known about the case all along but kept it under wraps.

The details revealed by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. and the admissions by the governments of Australia and Israel are testing relations between the two allies, and raising questions about the extent of Mossad's influence in other countries.

One day after ABC identified Zygier as Prisoner X and a member of a prominent Melbourne Jewish family, Israel acknowledged for the first time on Wednesday that such a prisoner existed. After a flip-flop, Australia also admitted on Thursday that it was informed by Israel in February 2010 about the arrest of a dual Australian-Israeli citizen on security charges, and was later informed of his death.

Foreign Minister Bob Carr has ordered an investigation into his department's handling of Zygier's detention and death, which have raised embarrassing questions about the government's failure to protect the rights of a citizen.

Still, Carr did not explicitly identify the man as Zygier or say why he was incarcerated and whether he worked for Mossad.

The government has only said that the man's Australian passport had the name Ben Allen but that he was also known as Ben Alon. ABC identified him as Ben Zygier from a prominent Jewish business family of Melbourne. He was referred to as Zygier during a Senate hearing on Thursday where Carr said the government had sought assurances from Israel, through its spy agencies, that Zygier's legal rights would be respected.

Carr said Australia also received assurances that Zygier would have his choice of lawyer, that he was not being mistreated and that his family had been notified of his arrest.

"The Australian government relied on these assurances," Carr said. "The Israeli government further advised the Australian government that the individual would be treated in accordance with his lawful rights as an Israeli citizen."

But Carr did not say how or why Zygier committed suicide. He said neither Zygier nor his family ever asked for consular assistance.

It appears that the case was initially discussed between the two governments only through Australia's spy agencies. The Australian Embassy in Tel Aviv remained in the dark, said Peter Varghese, a Foreign Ministry official.

Varghese said the embassy was not informed of Zygier's detention until the day after he died on Dec. 15, 2010. He said he did not know if the then-Foreign Minister Stephen Smith was briefed about the case.

"It's entirely possible that the minister might well have been briefed orally and given the nature of this case, that wouldn't surprise me," said Varghese, who has been asked by Carr to investigate the matter.

Varghese conceded that it was unusual for Australia to use security channels to seek assurances from a foreign government about the rights of a citizen.

"No, it's not normal practice and this is not a normal case," Varghese said.

He also declined to comment on media reports that Zygier had been under investigation by Australia's main spy agency, ASIO. Australia's Fairfax Media reported Thursday that Zygier was one of at least three dual Australian-Israeli citizens being investigated by ASIO in early 2010 over suspicions that they were spying for Israel.

The ABC reported that the 34-year-old Zygier moved from Australia to Israel in 2000. He married an Israeli woman and was the father of two young children. The broadcaster said he was working for Mossad when he was placed in a maximum-security prison for an unspecified crime in February 2010. It claimed he hanged himself in a cell that had been specially designed for Yigal Amir, the Jewish ultranationalist who in 1995 assassinated then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Israeli TV has speculated that Zygier was imprisoned after committing some kind of act of treason.

On Thursday, lawyer Avigdor Feldman told Israel's Channel 10 television that he met with Zygier in his cell a day or two before he died. Feldman said Zygier denied the "serious" charges he was facing, and that he was considering a plea bargain. Zygier appeared balanced and rational, Feldman said.

In Israel, a court order on Wednesday lifted parts of gag orders on the case dating to March 2010 and confirmed that an Israeli man who held dual citizenship in an undisclosed country died in custody in 2010.

Identifying the man only as the Hebrew equivalent of John Doe, the court order said a judge ordered an investigation into his death. About six weeks ago, the court statement said, the investigation concluded that he committed suicide. However, a judge has now asked the state to check for possible negligence.

In another curious wrinkle in the case, Israeli TV reported that Zygier had worked as a clerk in the international business department of one of Israel's most prestigious law firms, Herzog Fox & Neeman. The firm is partially owned by Israel's Justice Minister, Yaakov Neeman.

Neeman has told parliament he knew nothing of the case but said any allegations, if true, should be investigated.

Australian legislators, meanwhile, demanded answers about the suspicious death.

Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop told ABC she wanted to know why details of the case were being censored in Israel. She said she would raise the issue with the Israeli Embassy.

Information about the case emerged briefly in June 2010, when the Israeli news site Ynet reported on the existence of Prisoner X. The report was mysteriously removed from the site shortly after it was posted, apparently under pressure from Israel's military censor. The censor has authority to block or delete reports deemed threatening to national security.

Ynet then reported on Dec. 27, 2010, that a prisoner had committed suicide while in solitary confinement two weeks earlier. That report was also quickly removed.

The Israeli censor's office declined comment.

A death notice published online from December 2010 announced the funeral for Ben Zygier. He is listed as the son of Geoffrey Zygier, the executive director of the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation Commission based in Melbourne.

Zygier's father and his uncle, Willy Zygier, declined to comment on Thursday.

This is not the first alleged case of Israeli espionage involving an Australian passport. In May 2010, Australia ordered the expulsion of an Israeli diplomat after investigators concluded Israel was responsible for forging four Australian passports used by those responsible for the 2010 killing of a Hamas operative in Dubai.

At the time, Australia's then-Foreign Minister Smith said Israel had previously forged other Australian travel documents. He did not elaborate, but said the 2010 transgression breached "confidential undertakings" between the two countries that have stood for several years.

The affair caused strains in an otherwise very close relationship between the two countries.

Daniel Estrin reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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