Israel acknowledges Prisoner X suicide, investigation underway


(JTA) — Israel acknowledged for the first time that a dual national it held in a high-security prison committed suicide two years ago, and said an investigation into possible negligence was underway.

The statement by Israel’s Justice Ministry Wednesday  does not name Ben Zygier, an Australian Israeli identified by Australian media as Prisoner X. However, newspaper and radio reports leave no doubt that he is the prisoner.

The ministry says that Zygier, who was arrested in 2010, had legal representation throughout his detention and that his family was notified upon his arrest and then upon his death two years ago. It does not give a precise date of his death.

The statement says that a judge supervising the case ordered an investigation, and that the death was established to be suicide about six weeks ago. The Attorney General’s Office is now investigating whether there was negligence, the statement said, and Zygier’s family has had "representation" throughout the process.

Earlier, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said officers in his department were aware that an Australian national was being held in secret in an Israeli prison.

Carr said Wednesday that he was acting on the advice of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade when he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s "Foreign Correspondent" program that the Australian government did not know about the imprisonment of Zygier, known in Israel as Ben Alon, until after his death, The Australian newspaper reported.

"Foreign Correspondent" reported Tuesday that Prisoner X, believed to be Zygier, was jailed in early 2010 and apparently committed suicide two years ago in the high-security Ayalon Prison near Tel Aviv. The report suggested that he worked for Israel’s Mossad secret service. 

Carr has ordered the Foreign Affairs department to review the case, according to the newspaper.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported Wednesday that at the time that Zygier died in Ayalon Prison, he was being investigated by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization under the suspicion that he was using his Australian passport to spy for Israel. He reportedly was one of three dual citizens under investigation at that time. Zygier reportedly also used the alias Ben Allen.

Meanwhile, Israeli Ambassador to Australia Yuval Rotem met with the Australian Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop on Wednesday. Bishop said prior to the meeting that she would raise the issue of Zygier as well as her concerns about the censoring of news reports by Israel.

Israeli Justice Minister Yaakov Ne’eman was pressed by Israeli lawmakers about the issue on Tuesday during a televised Knesset session. Ne’eman responded, “I cannot answer these questions 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.

Zygier’s family declined to speak to the news program, which reported that friends and acquaintances approached by "Foreign Correspondent" also refused to comment.

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