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'Prisoner X' Mystery Puts Spotlight On Israel's Spy Agency

The "prisoner x" story is front page news in Australia.
William West
AFP/Getty Images
The "prisoner x" story is front page news in Australia.

This sounds like something from a spy novel, but it's the top of a real-life Associated Press story today:

"He was known as Prisoner X, his crimes unknown. For months he languished in an Israeli prison until he was he was found dead in his cell in an apparent suicide. Later, rumors would swirl that he was an Australian-Israeli who worked for the Israeli secret service Mossad.

"The web of secrecy surrounding the man with at least three names — Ben Zygier, Ben Alon, and Ben Allen — is slowly lifting after Australia's public broadcaster revealed details of his case, unraveling the media blackout that the Israeli government had imposed for more than two years using military censorship laws. The report has also forced the Australian government to admit that it had known about the case all along but kept it under wraps."

We would have to write a post about as long and complicated as a John le Carre book to include ever twist and turn in this tale. But we can hit some highlights and offer links to pieces that cover a lot of territory.

-- Australian Broadcasting Co., earlier this week: "Evidence has been unearthed that strongly suggests Israel's infamous Prisoner X, who was jailed under extraordinary circumstances in 2010, was an Australian national from Melbourne. Investigations by the ABC's Foreign Correspondent program have revealed Ben Zygier, who used the name Ben Alon in Israel, was found hanged in a high-security cell at a prison near Tel Aviv in late 2010.

"His body was flown to Melbourne for burial a week later. The death goes part of the way to explain the existence in Israel of a so-called Prisoner X, widely speculated in local and international media as an inmate whose presence has been acknowledged by neither the jail system nor the government."

-- The New York Times, on Wednesday: "One day after Mr. Zygier, a 34-year-old father of two, was identified by an Australian television report as Israel's mysterious Prisoner X, Israel released its first official acknowledgment of the case, lifting a news 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.' "

-- Reuters, earlier today: "An Australian immigrant, reported to have been recruited by Israel's Mossad spy agency, was charged with grave crimes before he committed suicide in an Israeli jail, one of his lawyers said on Thursday. The closely guarded case has raised questions in Australia and Israel about the suspected use by the Mossad of dual Australian-Israeli nationals and the circumstances behind the 2010 detention and death of 34-year-old Ben Zygier. ...

"In an apparent reversal from previous statements, Australian Foreign minister Bob Carr said on Thursday his ministry had known about Zygier's jailing in Israel as early as February 2010. On Wednesday he said Australian diplomats in Israel only found out about the detention after his death in custody later that year. Israel's Justice Ministry said a court has ordered an inquiry into possible negligence in Zygier's death."

-- The Associated Press, earlier today, summing up some of the story's history: "The ABC reported that the 34-year-old Zygier moved from Australia to Israel in 2000. He married an Israeli woman and was the father of two young children. The broadcaster said he was working for Mossad when he was placed in a maximum-security prison for an unspecified crime in February 2010. It claimed he hanged himself in a cell that had been specially designed for Yigal Amir, the Jewish ultranationalist who in 1995 assassinated then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

"Israeli TV has speculated that Zygier was imprisoned after committing some kind of act of treason.

"On Thursday, lawyer Avigdor Feldman told Israel's Channel 10 television that he met with Zygier in his cell a day or two before he died. Feldman said Zygier denied the 'serious' charges he was facing, and that he was considering a plea bargain. Zygier appeared balanced and rational, Feldman said."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.
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