(JTA) — Knesset members pressed Israel’s justice minister for answers on "Prisoner X," who was identified in an Australian TV report as an Australian-born Israeli who worked for the Mossad and died in an Israeli prison.
The Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported Tuesday that the man referred to in Israel as Prisoner X was jailed in early 2010 and apparently committed suicide two years ago in the high-security Ayalon Prison near Tel Aviv. The report identified him as Ben Zygier, who was known in Israel as Ben Alon. Israel has not confirmed the identification.
A gag order that is still in effect on the Israeli media was issued in the incident in late June 2010, according to the network’s investigative news program "Foreign Correspondent," which said the order barred any mention of Prisoner X or of the gag order itself. In December 2010, the Hebrew-language Ynet newsite reported on the existence of the prisoner in a short article that was removed.
Following the broadcast Tuesday, Israeli news editors were called to the Prime Minister’s Office for an emergency meeting of the Israeli Editors Committee, an informal forum comprised of the editors and owners of major Israeli media outlets that dates back to David Ben-Gurion. Shortly after the meeting, news items reporting on the Australian report — a bid to avoid the gag order — were removed from Israeli news sites, according to Haaretz.
"Today we hear that in a country that presumes to be a democracy, journalists are cooperating with the government without the knowledge of the High Court, and that anonymous prisoners are committing suicide and no one knows who they are," Meretz party chairwoman Zahava Gal-On asked Israeli Justice Minister Yaakov Ne’eman during a Tuesday Knesset session. "How does that comply with democracy and the rule of the law?"
United Arab List-Ta’al lawmaker Ahmad Tibi asked Ne’eman, "Do you have any information, sir, pertaining to this incident? Can you confirm the fact that an Australian citizen has committed suicide in prison under a false identity?"
“I cannot answer these questions," Ne’eman responded, "because the matter does not fall under the authority of the justice minister. But there is no doubt that if true, the matter must be looked into.”
"Foreign Correspondent" reported 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.
According to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s website, Zygier was found hanged in a cell with state-of-the-art surveillance systems that are installed to prevent suicide. Guards reportedly tried unsuccessfully to revive him. His body was retrieved and flown to Melbourne, where he was buried.
The network said it "understands that he was recruited by the spy agency Mossad."
Zygier’s family declined to speak to the news program, which reported that friends and acquaintances approached by "Foreign Correspondent" also refused to comment.