The headstone of Ben Zygier, known in Israel as Ben Alon, at the Chevra Kadisha… (Julian Smith / EPA )
JERUSALEM -- Government officials in Australia vowed Wednesday to investigate the secret detention and mysterious death of a Jewish Australian immigrant who was found hanged to death in a high-security Israeli prison cell in 2010.
Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said he would review his department’s handling of the arrest and death of Ben Zygier, 34, who had immigrated to Israel and was suspected of working for Israel’s spy agency, Mossad.
For unknown reasons, Zygier was arrested by Israeli security officials in 2010, perhaps after running afoul of Mossad, according to a report aired Tuesday by Australian Broadcasting Corp. After months of solitary confinement, Zygier was reported to have committed suicide and his body was returned to Melbourne.
Australian officials are now under fire for failing to do more to assist Zygier after he was arrested and inquire into the circumstances of his death.
At the time of his arrest, Zygier was being investigated by Australian security officials on suspicion of using his Australian passport for Israeli espionage, Australian Age newspaper reported Wednesday.
Zygier, who appears to have obtained additional passports under the name Ben Alon and Ben Allen, was being investigated by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization after he changed his name to a less Jewish-sounding one and obtained a new passport, the newspaper reported. Australian security agents noticed that his passport had been used for travel in Iran, Syria and Lebanon, the paper said.
Israel has long been accused of using foreign passports to gain access to hostile countries where Israeli citizens would not be able travel.
In 2010, Mossad was accused of using foreign passports in an elaborate undercover operation to assassinate Hamas operative Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel room. Much of the operation was captured on surveillance cameras, triggering an international backlash against Israel from those nations whose passports had been used, including Australia.
Israeli officials have declined to comment on the Zygier case.
The matter is seen as so sensitive that the government is censoring Israeli media outlets that try to report on the case. Several news outlets were pressured into removing articles about the case from their websites Tuesday.
As a result, most media organizations are quoting foreign reports or focusing on the Israeli government’s attempt to silence the story.
Little is known about Zygier’s time in Israel, although it has been established that he married an Israeli woman and had two children. Some members of Kibbutz Gazit, in Israel’s Jezreel Valley, told Haaretz newspaper Wednesday that they recalled Zygier as a smart and eager soldier in the Israel Defense Forces when he first arrived in Israel 13 years ago. They said their community hosted him during holidays since he had just arrived and had no family in Israel.
His arrest was first uncovered in 2010 when the Israeli news site Ynet wrote about a mysterious “Prisoner X” who was being held in solitary confinement in a prison south of Tel Aviv. Government security officials quickly ordered the article removed. Subsequent gag orders prevented media outlets from pursuing the story.
On Tuesday, the prime minister’s office called an emergency meeting of the nation’s top editors to urge them to refrain from publishing information about the story, which it said would be “very embarrassing,” according to Israeli media reports.
An Israeli civil rights group on Wednesday called upon the government to lift the media restrictions, calling them anti-democratic.
Lawmaker Nitzan Horowitz, from the left-leaning Meretz Party, said Wednesday he had inquired about the case in 2010 and was assured by law enforcement officials that the prisoner had been under good care. On Wednesday, he called for an inquiry into the detention and death.
“Doesn’t this indicate a basic failure in the law enforcement system," he said. “Sweeping everything into a deep, Draconian secrecy has no place in democratic regimes.”
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