February 15, 2013 6:56 pm

Prisoner X sparks Israel liberties debate

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When an Australian television programme broke the news this week of a Melbourne-born man’s death by apparent hanging in a maximum-security prison cell, Israel’s government declined all comment.

But the story was picked up and pursued aggressively, first by opposition MPs in the Knesset – who used their parliamentary immunity to skirt a court-imposed gag order – then by an Israeli press that had been barred from reporting it two years ago, and were again asked by government to keep quiet this week.

The man, still identified only as “John Doe” by Israel, was named by the programme as Ben Zygier and described as a Mossad spy. Within hours, pictures of his boyish face, taken from social media sites, were circling around the globe.

The case has caused Israelis across the political spectrum to question the strength of their civil liberties, the robustness of censorship rules, and the quality of a judicial system and media that toed the state’s line on security in the case of a man who had been indicted on undisclosed charges but not been found guilty of a crime at the time of his death.

Liberal Israelis were pained to learn that a prisoner could be held for months under a false name and die in captivity, with the case then hushed up, ostensibly for security reasons. By Friday calls were being made for charges of negligence to be brought relating to the man’s death.

“There are real security threats to Israel but it’s turned to hysteria around all security matters,” said Dan Yakir, chief legal counsel with the association for Civil Rights in Israel. “The security services, either consciously or unconsciously, used security considerations to cover up a mess and grave misconduct which undermined the public interest.”

Taking a cue from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “Foreign Correspondent” programme, which broke the story, Israelis widely referred to Mr Zygier as “Prisoner X” – a term redolent of the forced disappearances of dissidents under dictatorships in 1970s Latin America.

But although the Australian television report forced Israel to lift its gag order, the Israeli government is still providing few details on the case, saying only that “John Doe” was found dead in his cell in December 2010. It said a coroner ruled his death was a suicide but a judge ordered “an evaluation regarding issues of negligence”.

ABC said Mr Zygier, who was 34 when he died, carried an Israeli passport under the name Ben Allen. He was jailed in solitary confinement in Ward 15 of Ayalon prison in a cell originally built for Yigal Amir, who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

Citing prison sources, Israeli media said on Friday that Mr Zygier was jailed under a false name. One unnamed high-ranking justice official told the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth that this happens in “many cases” where revealing it might damage state security.

[Prisoner X affair is] a catastrophe for Israel

- Ha’aretz editorial

Critics this week derided Israel’s censorship regime, which relies mainly on gag orders banning the publication of sensitive stories, as laughably outdated in the age of Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle.

Israeli journalists commonly circumvent the rules by re-reporting foreign stories: in some cases, reporters leak sensitive stories to correspondents from other countries so they can be the first to pick up the foreign “scoop”.

But Israelis are also asking how a man in the most secure cell in Israel’s tightest maximum-security prison could hang himself under the gaze of closed-circuit television cameras.

The newspaper Maariv reported that crime scene officers were only allowed into Mr Zygier’s cell several hours after his death. Avigdor Feldman, a lawyer who was one of the last people to see him alive, said he found the prisoner “stressed and worried” but saw no signs that he was contemplating suicide.

In a passionate “J’accuse” editorial published on Friday, the liberal newspaper Ha’aretz called the Prisoner X affair “a catastrophe for Israel” and said it must be investigated.

The case has reignited a controversy over Israel’s use of spies carrying foreign passports. Australia expelled an Israeli diplomat in 2010 after it emerged that Mossad agents linked to the assassination of a Hamas figure in Dubai had used four Australian passports.

Media have speculated that Mr Zygier was poised to give the Australian authorities information about Mossad’s use of foreign passports to conduct its operations. One report said he “talked too much” about his work for Mossad.

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