Australia was informed about the arrest of a suspected Mossad agent of Australian origin 10 months before he was found hanged in his Israeli prison cell, Foreign Minister Bob Carr said.
The government “was informed in February 2010 through intelligence channels that the Israeli authorities had detained a dual Australian-Israeli citizen, and they provided the name of the citizen, in relation to serious offenses under Israeli national security legislation,” Carr told a parliamentary committee in the capital, Canberra, today. On Dec. 16, 2010, Australia was informed through “intelligence channels” that the man, Ben Zygier, had died the previous day, Carr said.
Australian Broadcasting Corp. television reported the story two days ago. Following the broadcast, top editors of Israeli media outlets were called into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office and told that all reports on the story were subject to security censorship.
An Israeli court yesterday partially lifted the gag order on the case, and confirmed some of the facts in the ABC report.
“The Prison Service detained a prisoner who held both Israeli and foreign citizenship. For security reasons, the prisoner was held under an alias,” the Justice Ministry said in an e-mailed statement. “The prisoner was found dead in his cell approximately two years ago.”
The State Attorney’s Office is evaluating whether there was negligence involved in the prisoner’s death, the ministry said.
ABC said its investigation linked Zygier, also known as Ben Alon and 34 years old at the time of his death, to a figure dubbed “Prisoner X” in a 2010 report by the Ynet news website that said the detainee was being held in Israel’s Ayalon prison.
After Zygier’s detention, Australia sought assurances from Israel that he wouldn’t be mistreated and should be allowed legal representation, Carr said. He ordered a review into government processes after saying earlier that the Australian embassy in Tel Aviv had informed him it had no information about Zygier’s death.
Julie Bishop, deputy leader of Australia’s Liberal-National opposition, met the Israeli Ambassador to Canberra Yuval Rotem yesterday and expressed concern over the ABC report, she said today.
Zygier was one of at least three dual Australian-Israeli citizens being investigated in early 2010 by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation over suspicions they were spying for Israel, Fairfax Media said today, without saying where it obtained the information.
ABC said that Zygier began working for Mossad after emigrating to Israel 12 years ago. He hanged himself in Ayalon prison three years ago after being arrested for unknown reasons, the network reported, without saying where it got the information.
Zehava Gal-On, chairwoman of Israel’s opposition Meretz party, yesterday issued a call in parliament for the government to offer a fuller account of the story and criticized the censorship of local media.
“It’s funny that some people still think that in this digital age you can stop information from getting out,” Gal-On told Army Radio. “The authorities in Israel are fighting yesterday’s war.”
One of Zygier’s Israeli lawyers said today he spoke with his client a day before he died and saw no signs to indicate he was contemplating suicide.
“I patiently heard him out, to my mind he seemed rational, and he didn’t display any exceptional feelings of self-pity,” attorney Avigdor Feldman said in an interview on Army Radio.
An Australian journalist spoke with Zygier in 2009 over allegations that he helped set up a Mossad front company in Europe to sell electronic equipment to Iran, the Guardian reported today. Zygier “denied everything,” reporter Jason Katsoukis told the Guardian.
The Brisbane Times reported today that unidentified Australian security officials suspect that prior to his arrest, Zygier may have been about to expose Israeli use of Australian passports for espionage purposes. The officials said their government was informed of his arrest just after Dubai police announced that Australian passports were used by three of the suspects in the alleged Mossad assassination a month earlier of Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.
In May, 2010, Australia expelled an Israeli diplomat to protest what it said was the “involvement of state intelligence” in fake Australian passports linked to the killing of Mabhouh. Israel has never acknowledged its involvement in the Dubai operation.