The strange case of “Prisoner X”

Ben Zygier, “Prisoner X”

Israel woke up today to a story seemingly out of 1001 Arabian Nights. Even by the lunatic standards of Middle Eastern conspiracy theories this story ranks way above anything any of us could have imagined. And yet almost nothing definite is known. The story so far:

Ynet: “Dead Mossad agent revealed“:

Australian television network ABC aired an investigation Tuesday revealing that an Australian national who was held in complete isolation at the Ayalon Prison in Ramla, had died in his cell. According to official documents, he committed suicide.

His body was flown to Melbourne for burial a week later.

The death goes part of the way to explain the existence in Israel of a so-called Prisoner X, widely speculated in local and international media as an inmate whose presence has been acknowledged by neither the jail system nor the government.

The case is regarded as one of the most sensitive secrets of Israel’s intelligence community, with the government going to extraordinary lengths to stifle media coverage and gag attempts by human rights organisations to expose the situation.

[...]

The ABC understands Zygier became its occupant in early 2010. His incarceration was so secret that it is claimed not even guards knew his identity.

Israeli media at the time reported that this Prisoner X received no visitors and lived hermetically sealed from the outside world.

Foreign correspondent revealed that Zygier was 34 at the time of his death and had moved to Israel about 10 years earlier. He was married to an Israeli woman and had two small children.

Zygier’s arrest and jailing in Israel remains a mystery, but the ABC understands he was recruited by spy agency Mossad.

It is understood Zygier “disappeared” in early 2010, spending several months in the Prisoner X cell.

At the time, human rights organisation Association for Civil Rights in Israel criticised the imprisonment and wrote to Israel’s attorney-general.

“It’s alarming that there’s a prisoner being held incommunicado and we know nothing about him,” wrote the association’s chief legal counsel Dan Yakir.

The assistant to the attorney-general wrote back: “The current gag order is vital for preventing a serious breach of the state’s security, so we cannot elaborate about this affair.”

[...]

Zygier’s apparent suicide in prison adds to the mystery. He was found hanged in a cell which was equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance systems installed to prevent suicide. Guards reportedly tried unsuccessfully to revive him.

His body was retrieved and flown to Melbourne. He was buried in Chevra Kadisha Jewish cemetery in the suburb of Springvale on December 22, seven days after his death.

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said Wednesday in response to the investigation that contrary to international conventions, Australian diplomats in Israel learned about Zygier’s story only after his death.

“Those allegations certainly do trouble me,” Carr told ABC. “I’m not reluctant to seek an explanation from the Israeli government about what happened.”

Asked whether he would ask Israel about the case, he said: “The difficulty is I’m advised we’ve had no contact with his family (and) there’s been no request for consular assistance during the period it’s alleged he was in prison.”

He added that without a complaint there was little he could do.

Australian newspaper Sydney Morning Herald reported Wednesday that Carr’s office revealed an Australian diplomat was aware Zygier had been detained in an Israeli prison before his death in 2010.

A spokesman for Carr corrected previous statements by the government that it knew nothing of the Zygier case until the prisoner died and his relatives – a prominent Jewish family in Melbourne – asked for his body to be repatriated.

There’s a video of the Australian investigation at the link too.

So far, so mysterious. Even stranger is the fact that Zygier’s family have not been kicking up a stink in public. Whether this means they are embarrassed or threatened remains to be seen.

A juicy story like this, with few verified facts and very much speculation, has led to some fascinating theories.

The Times of Israel brings us the Guardian’s report of the Australian investigation (this sounds like Had Gadya…), explaining that Zygier worked for a Mossad front company dealing with Iran.

The Jerusalem Post meanwhile reports that Australia is seeking an explanation from Israel about “Prisoner X”.  However, according to the Honest Reporting’s daily news stream, the Australians knew about the case at the time:

• It turns out that the Aussie government knew that Ben Zygier was imprisoned. Raising questions of what Canberra knew and when, The Australian writes:

Senator Carr says he was acting on Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade advice when he told the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program this week that the government knew nothing of Mr Zygier’s detention until after his death in 2010.

But Senator Carr says DFAT told him today that some officials were aware of it much earlier.

“The department has today come back and said some officers of the department were in fact aware of his detention,” a spokesman for Senator Carr told AAP.

The Australian Jewish community, unfortunately caught up in the middle of this intriguing spy story, are unsurprisingly keeping mum, along with the spy’s family:

Speaking with ABC radio on Wednesday morning, the deceased’s uncle Willy Zygier said that he “saw that show last night I have I have no idea what is true and what isn’t true.”

“All I know is there is family tragedy, every suicide is a family tragedy. Ben’s parents are in mourning. I don’t know if they will talk. I am a humble musician. I don’t know anything.
“All I can say is the Devil must be a publicist. Hell of a way to get publicity for our record.”

The media has extensively reported that Ben Zygier is the son of Geoffrey Zygier, the executive director of the Victoria Jewish Community Council and one of the heads of the Melbourne Jewish Community.

Australian newspaper The Standard reported that a spokesman for Geoffrey Zygier said  that he and his family would not be discussing their son’s death.

The implications of this case could be very wide ranging, as the Times of Israel reports:

Assuming the information is accurate, the impact of the exposure of the alleged agent and his movements on behalf of Israeli intelligence in Iran, Syria and Lebanon, will have “very significant” consequences for ongoing work, Channel 10 news said.

In countries such as Iran and Syria, the authorities would now be checking through their records, working out when Zygier entered, who accompanied him, and who he met with, the TV report said.

As in all stories of espionage and intrigue, it is often the cover-up that makes more news than the original story, and this case is proving to be a prime example. Honest Reporting provide some “thoughts on Prisoner X“:

You can’t put a lid on it:

One thing is crystal clear, however. The Israeli government’s attempts to squash the story have backfired and have drawn more attention to itself. The gag order meant to muzzle the Israeli press has been shown to be a blunt and ineffective instrument. For some people, their morning delivery of the English edition of Haaretz came packaged with the International Herald Tribune. While Haaretz was subject to publishing restrictions, the IHT had no such problem with printing the “Prisoner X” story.

In an age of global communications, it is virtually impossible to keep a lid on the information leaking out somewhere and Israeli media are quite adept at reporting what the foreign media are reporting in order to circumvent the limited censorship that exists when it comes to issues pertaining to national security.

David Brinn at the Jerusalem Post makes a similar argument:

Within minutes, a paranoid editor might say as if they had been listening in on the conversation, the IDF censor’s office called and the duty officer ceremoniously announced that any information related to ‘Prisoner X’ was under a court-issued gag order, and any publication of with details of the story – or mentioning the gag order itself – would be akin to breaking the law and subject to possible prosecution and fine.

I tried to reason with him, explaining that in past cases of sensitive issues related to security, we had been allowed to publish stories quoting foreign sources.

“You realize, of course, that the story is on the ABC News website and everyone is able to read about it?” I said.

It doesn’t matter, the censor reiterated, the gag order supersedes those reports, and no Israeli media outlet is allowed to report anything about it.

[...]

Meanwhile the twittersphere and Facebook world was bouncing the ABC story around like the piece of dynamite it was, with comments and repostings growing exponentially by the minute. By mid-afternoon, the Reuters bureau in Jerusalem had already posted a complete story about not only Prisoner X, but also the censor’s efforts to stifle the story internally.

The offline Israeli public, though, became aware of Prisoner X only after MKs Zahava Gal-On, Dov Henin and Ahmed Tibi raised the issue during their speeches in the Knesset plenum in the middle of the afternoon by asking outgoing Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman to confirm the ABC reports.

By then, it was clear that whatever efforts made by the censor to keep the story from getting ‘out there’ were futile, and that, gag order or not, there was nothing that could be done to rein in the leaks.

[...]

There are certainly instances when the publication of details of sensitive, security-related issues indeed should be monitored, and if need be, censored. It’s especially relevant if the publication of such material could endanger lives of Israeli citizens or Israeli security personnel.

However, as exemplified by the Prisoner X saga, the digital communication age has changed the playing field. If a story is under wraps, it’s one thing. But once a report has surfaced online and is disseminated faster than one can press “favorite,” there’s clearly another set of rules that need to be brought into play.

The anachronistic behavior of the IDF censor must adapt to this new reality in order to regain any semblance of credibility. The absurd situation that resulted in Israelis who prefer newspapers, radio and TV to the Internet being segregated and kept in the dark while the rest of the country and the world can learn all they want about Prisoner X, has to stop.

Brinn makes an excellent point.  It is not easy in this modern age of mass instant communication to keep a lid on military or national secrets, and as noted above, once a story is out it is impossible to put it back under wraps. I don’t know what the solution is, but we must learn to find a way to keep our secrets under wrap when national security is endangered.

But beyond all the secrecy, the intrigue, the espionage and the cover-up, what remains is a tragedy for the family of a man imprisoned for what appears to be treachery on an enormous scale, and who took the only way out that he saw possible.

Unless it wasn’t suicide…

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6 Responses to The strange case of “Prisoner X”

  1. NormanF says:

    He never existed. In the spy world, no one exists. This is true regardless of whether he was a double agent working for the enemy or was an enemy agent. For obvious reasons, his true identity will never be revealed.

    The Israeli media has been full of groundless speculation, endangering both an innocent Jewish family and the security of the state. Concern for the greater good of the country hasn’t stopped from publishing unverified rumors as proven fact. Its shines a window not so much into official secrecy as in the refusal of the Israeli press to act like the country is at war.

    • anneinpt says:

      I think you’re being much too harsh on the Israeli press. They kept completely quiet about the whole saga until the Australians started publishing the story. Once the story was out, the social media took care of the rest – you can’t silence facebook or twitter.

      So if everyone knows about the story and can read about it even in Israel, what is the point of silencing only the Israeli media? And they did keep their silence. They simply asked for the gag order to be removed which made sense since the story was out there anyway.

  2. Josh Wallace says:

    Interesting that this is the first post I’ve seen to suggest it wasn’t suicide. I wonder how it COULD have been suicide, given the heavy monitoring.

    The best theories advanced so far were that Zygier gave information to the Dubai authorities (his picture seems to appear among the Dubai mugshots of Mossad agents) and that Israel thought he might give information about its use of foreign passports for special ops.

    These are both cat-out-of-the-bag, horse-out-of-the-stable scenarios. On the other hand, getting kidnapped and tossed in an Israel prison for almost two decades was the fate of Mordechai Vanunu–who told the world what they already knew, that Israel had the A-bomb.

    I suspect that the Zygier case is much like that. Under pressure or for whatever reason he released information that was already known to the enemy, but that his Mossad colleagues felt was an intolerable breach of etiquette. I doubt his imprisonment really served to protect Israel’s continued existence.

    • anneinpt says:

      Hello Josh, I think your comment contains as much speculation as my own post. I wasn’t really suggesting that Zygier’s death was not suicide. I was merely trying to be slightly amusing.

      The theories that he was involved somehow with the Dubai assassination has now been debunked by various agencies outside of Israel.

      As for comparing Zygier to Vanunu, that is a non-starter. Vanunu’s treachery was open and declared for all to see, whereas Zygier’s crime is a mystery. Vanunu’s sentence was as much a deterrence to other would-be traitors as to prevent him revealing any military or nuclear secrets.

      • Josh Wallace says:

        Shalom, Annie,
        The “debunking,” as reported in the Jerusalem Post, is based on this picture:

        http://www.jpost.com/HttpHandlers/ShowImage.ashx?ID=213496

        However, I could not find that image among the “Mossad Dubai hit team” picture appearing on the Web.

        Here’s a link to some of “wanted Mossad” agents involved in the Dubai hit:

        Ben Zygier’s likeness appears on the top left. Compare with:

        As for whether Zygier actually committed suicide, it’s a legitimate question, now being cautiously asked in a few blogs and news reports. It is worthy of consideration, since apparently, he was being watched and his vital signs constantly monitored in his cell.

        As for Vanunu, I don’t agree that saying what everyone knows is a terrible crime.

        Josh

  3. reality says:

    I was listening to the radio on Wednesday morning ,all full of this story & taking journalists to task for publishing sensitive materials ,& even the radio hosts were admitting that sometimes in the name of security journalists have to remain quiet. The other point brought up, was the fact that Ahmed Tibi (Arab party leader in Knesset) & Zehava Gal -On (Meretz) were the ones to start the ball rolling in this mess to pull Netanyahu down, which is disgusting as they will obviously do anything including endangering Israels need for security & silence on certain matters to make a name for themselves. Tibi I understand -he’s not exactly a loyal israeli citizen but Gal -On? Obviously she too is not a loyal Israeli citizen either.Its interesting that Australia were trying to remain silent too ubtil such a fuss was made , so various requests for explanation were made.Interesting too that the family are remaining silent & aren’t requesting information. Presumably it will all be made clear to them in private. There are so many rumours surrounding the entire story ,including that he was a plant in the jail, he was a double agent spy who sold israel out -but none of these theories have been voiced by any offical representative, so I think we should all calm down & let the authorities deal with it in their own way. Dry Bones cartoonist Krishen srew a very clever cartoon about this prisoner -see for yourself.http://drybonesblog.blogspot.co.il/

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