Canberra: He was known as Prisoner X, his crimes unknown. For months he languished in an Israeli prison until he was found dead in his cell in an apparent suicide. Later, rumours 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, unravelling 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.
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.
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.
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 December 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.