Australia orders review into Israel Prisoner X case

Ayalon prison watchtower Prisoner X was reportedly held at Ayalon prison in Ramle, Israel

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr has announced a review into his ministry's handling of the case of an Australian man who reportedly hanged himself in an Israeli jail in 2010.

On Tuesday, Australia's ABC News said the man, known as Prisoner X, was an Australian national called Ben Zygier.

The report said there was evidence to suggest Mr Zygier worked for Israel's Mossad intelligence agency.

The Israeli authorities have not officially commented on the ABC report.

Speculation about the identity of the prisoner, whose existence was not officially acknowledged, had been rife since the story broke more than two years ago.

Start Quote

All I know is there's a family tragedy... Every suicide is a tragedy”

End Quote Willy Zygier Uncle of Ben Zygier

Mr Carr told ABC's Foreign Correspondent programme that he was troubled by the investigation's findings.

He said Australian diplomats in Israel had only found out about the detention of Mr Zygier - who was also known as Ben Alon and Ben Allen - after his death. He said Mr Zygier's family had not made a complaint, in the absence of which there was little the government could do.

However, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) admitted on Wednesday that some officials had known earlier than previously thought.

"DFAT has now advised that some officers of the department were made aware of Mr Allen's detention at the time in 2010 by another Australian agency," a spokeswoman said in a statement.

"Minister Carr has asked department secretary, Mr Peter Varghese, to review the handling of this consular case."

Analysis

Two years ago the Israeli news website YNet reported only that an Israeli citizen was being held in Ayalon Prison, and later that he had committed suicide.

But if you asked any Israeli journalists - even informally and off-the-record - what they knew of the case of "Prisoner X", they would get visibly uncomfortable. Gag orders are rarely used in Israel, which likes to celebrate its democratic values, such as freedom of the press. However, when they are imposed, particularly in cases of national security, they are taken very seriously.

In the end it was the international dimension of this story that made it difficult to keep secret. As ABC prepared to air its report in Australia, the newspaper Haaretz reported on how Israeli media editors had been asked to cooperate with the government and withhold information that was "embarrassing to a certain government agency".

Yet there was nothing to stop Israelis from going online to find out the news from foreign media. Members of parliament here also asked the difficult questions that led to a partial lifting of the gag order.

Bill van Esveld, a Jerusalem-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the case raised serious questions about prisoners' rights in Israel.

"If the facts are what we're told they might be, we could be facing an issue of disappearance of a prisoner," he told the Associated Press. "Or there could be an issue of incommunicado detention - taking someone into jail and not letting anyone else see them."

"At the very least, there could be severe due process violations - not allowing someone to see their family, their lawyer, presenting them before a court."

'Family tragedy'

According to ABC, Mr Zygier was from Melbourne and went by the name of Ben Alon in Israel. The Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed that Mr Zygier also carried an Australian passport bearing the name Ben Allen.

The programme said he had moved to Israel 10 years before his death. It said that at the time he died he was 34 years old, married to an Israeli woman and had two children.

The reason for Mr Zygier's arrest and imprisonment in Israel is not known, but ABC said it understood he had been recruited by Mossad.

Mr Zygier was found hanged in a cell in late 2010, months after he "disappeared", and his body was flown to Melbourne for burial the following week, ABC said.

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr speaks during a press conference with his German counterpart on January 28 Bob Carr told the ABC network he was "troubled" by the case

When the story about Prisoner X first emerged, Israeli media said the unidentified man was being held incommunicado at Ayalon high-security prison in Ramle, central Israel.

ABC said he was incarcerated in a wing built to house Yigal Amir, the Israeli who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. It said his cell was fitted with surveillance cameras designed to prevent incidents such as suicide.

The reason for his detention was not disclosed and his identification was so secret that even his guards did not know who he was, the programme said.

Mr Zygier's uncle, the musician Willy Zygier, told ABC local radio in Melbourne that he had "no idea what is true, what isn't true".

"All I know is there's a family tragedy. Every suicide is a tragedy. That's all I've got to say," he added.

Restrictions relaxed

Israel never acknowledged the prisoner's existence but issued a gagging order in 2010 to prevent details of the case being published.

Media gagging orders in Israel are rare and issued in special cases concerning national security.

The Israeli prime minister's office called an emergency meeting of Israeli media chiefs after the ABC story was published on Tuesday, urging them not to publish "information pertaining to an incident that is very embarrassing to a certain government agency", Israel's Haaretz newspaper website reported.

An article about the Australian report which appeared in Haaretz on Tuesday was later removed.

However, on Wednesday reporting restrictions were partially lifted after members of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, asked questions about the case.

Israeli media can now quote foreign media on details of the case, but cannot publish or broadcast any original material.

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