THE AGE: More details emerge about Israel’s prisoner 15Feb13 February 15, 2013

by Jodi Yudoren    -   The Age    -   15 February 2013

Jerusalem: Prisoner X used at least four names: Ben Zygier, Ben Alon, Ben Allen and Benjamin Burrows. Raised in a prominent Jewish family in Melbourne, he immigrated to Israel as a young man and joined the Israeli army, spending time on a kibbutz in the north.

And, according to an Australian news report, before his secret imprisonment and mysterious suicide in an Israeli maximum-security prison cell in 2010, he was one of several people being investigated by the Australian intelligence service, suspected of spying for Israel and using his passport for travel to Iran, Syria and Lebanon.

“You connect to people in different ways and I remember his blue eyes,” recalled Rivka Giland, the chairwoman of kibbutz Gazit, where Zygier was a frequent presence for a year or two about a decade before his death. “There was something in the way he looked — you know you see a young man sometimes in uniform and sometimes in civilian clothes — and he had smiling clear light eyes.

“Just like he arrived,” she added, “he then disappeared.”

One day after Zygier, a 34-year-old father of two, was identified by an Australian television report as Israel’s notorious Prisoner X, Israel released its first official acknowledgment of the case, lifting a media blackout of more than two years, and the Australian foreign minister ordered an investigation into his government’s handling of the detention and death.

Israel’s Justice Ministry issued a statement Wednesday night saying that a prisoner had been held under a pseudonym “for security reasons,” and that after a court-ordered inquiry, his death was ruled a suicide six weeks ago; a judge recommended that the state investigate whether it was negligent. Contrary to news reports, the statement said that the prisoner was represented by lawyers and that his family was notified of his arrest. The statement did not indicate why he was incarcerated, but said “the proceedings were overseen by senior officials in the Justice Ministry.”

“The prisoner’s rights were observed at all times, in accordance with the law,” the statement said. “National security prevents the release of any other details.”

Australia’s foreign minister on Wednesday ordered an investigation into his government’s handling of the case. The inquiry concerns only the “consular handling of the case,” not Zygier’s alleged spying, detention or death.

At first, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said in a statement that it had been unaware of Zygier’s situation until his family requested repatriation of his remains, but later on Wednesday another statement acknowledged that “some officers of the department were made aware” of his imprisonment beforehand “by another Australian agency.” Before the statement by Israel’s Justice Ministry, members of its Parliament had called for inquiries into the mysterious case and the extraordinary secrecy surrounding it, including a court order that had forced the removal of news items from websites in 2010 and on Tuesday. That order was partly lifted Wednesday.

The Israeli prime minister’s office and Foreign Ministry declined to discuss the case or the efforts at censorship.

But while his death remains a puzzle, a few details of Zygier’s life began to emerge.

His father, Geoffrey Zygier, is the executive director of the Melbourne-based B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission, who writes frequently about human rights, civil rights, interfaith dialogue and teenage alcohol abuse. The younger Zygier married an Israeli, worked as a lawyer and appears to have spent the year before his death studying for a business degree in Australia, according to Jason Koutsoukis, who interviewed him for a 2010 article in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age of Australia.

That article said Ben Zygier was one of at least three Australian-Israeli citizens suspected of working with the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, in part because they had travelled back to Australia to change their names and get new passports.

“He listened to me politely,” Mr Koutsoukis, who now lives in Beirut, recalled Wednesday, “and then he denied it all as strenuously as a person can deny being asked if they work for the Mossad.”

Mr Koutsoukis said Zygier “really placed a doubt in my mind,” and “looked and sounded like an earnest and sincere person who was trying to make a life in Israel.” Over a series of conversations, “he grewincreasingly exasperated and frustrated that I refused to accept his denials,” Koutsoukis added.

On Wednesday, Israeli politicians expressed their own growing frustrations about the case. Nitzan Horowitz, a member of Parliament from the left-wing Meretz Party, called on Israel’s attorney general to conduct “a complete and thorough inquiry” into “the circumstances of his imprisonment and, particularly, the circumstances of his death.” Speaking to Israel Radio, Mr Horowitz said he had inquired about Prisoner X after the 2010 reports and was assured by the attorney general’s office “that everything was aboveboard and that there was no such thing as a prisoner being held secretly.” Now, he said, “it seems that nothing about this was proper.”

“This is problematic for our democracy,” Mr Horowitz said. “He died in prison, under the watch of the prisons service, an institution belonging to the state of Israel, and it was responsible for his safety. And we have to learn what happened there and how it happened.”

But Rami Igra, a former high-ranking member of the Mossad, said such cases were more complicated than they seemed, and that the detention might have been kept secret to avoid compromising other intelligence sources.

“The fact that this is not made public has a clear security reason behind it and is not something agreed to easily,” Mr Igra said in a radio interview, noting the cost and effort it would take to keep a prisoner’s identity even from guards, as has been reported in this case. “Israel is a democratic, enlightened state, and there is no activity of the dark forces. What people are accustomed to seeing in the movies doesn’t exist in the state of Israel.”

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