Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Death of ‘Prisoner X’ embarrasses Israel

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pictured in Jerusalem on Feb. 10, 2013. Mr. Netanyahu’s office summoned Israeli editors to ask them not to publish a story about “prisoner x,” revealed by Australia’s ABC channel as an Australian national who committed suicide in an Israeli prison in 2010.

Uriel Sinai/Reuters

An Australian man committed suicide in a high-security Israeli jail in 2010 after being held for months in great secrecy, Australia's ABC channel said on Tuesday, throwing new light on a case that has rattled Israel.

The unsourced ABC story named the man – known previously only as "prisoner x" – as Ben Zygier. It added that it "understood" the 34-year-old from Melbourne had been previously recruited by the Israeli spy agency Mossad.

Within hours of the report surfacing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office summoned Israeli editors to ask them not to publish a story "that is very embarrassing to a certain government agency," Israel's Haaretz newspaper said.

Story continues below advertisement

"The emergency meeting was called following a broadcast outside Israel regarding the incident in question," Haaretz said. Shortly afterward, all reference to the Australian report vanished from Israeli news sites – including Haaretz itself.

Such a gag order is highly unusual in Israel, where state military censors normally allow local media to quote foreign sources on controversial incidents – such as an alleged attack on Syria last month by the Israeli air force.

Members of the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem asked Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman to confirm if the report was true and demanded to know if other prisoners were being held in secret.

"This matter is not within the jurisdiction of the justice ministry," Mr. Neeman said. "There is no doubt that if this information is accurate this is something that ought to be checked," he added.

The state censors gave news outlets in Israel the green light to report the parliamentary debate but nothing else.

ABC said Mr. Zygier, who came from a prominent Jewish family in Australia, had moved to Israel 10 years before his death and had taken on the name Ben Alon. He married an Israeli woman and the pair had two children.

The Australian television channel gave no reason for his imprisonment, speculating only that it would have had to concern espionage and sensitive state secrets.

Story continues below advertisement

The man's family in Israel and Australia did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The Australian embassy in Tel Aviv also declined comment, referring questions back to the government in Canberra.

ABC said Mr. Zygier's imprisonment was so secret that not even his guards knew his name. However, word got out at the time of a mysterious prisoner being held incognito and human-rights groups wrote to the state to demand more information.

"It is insupportable that, in a democratic country, authorities can arrest people in complete secrecy and disappear them from public view without the public even knowing such an arrest took place," the Association for Civil Rights in Israel wrote in June, 2010.

When Israel's Ynet website wrote about the case that same month, the story was quickly removed because of a gag order.

Mr. Zygier was allegedly held in Ayalon Prison near Tel Aviv and was found hanged in his cell in December, 2010. Funeral notices from Australia show that his body was flown back to Melbourne and that he was buried on Dec. 22.

Pictures of Mr. Zygier and his family remain on the Internet.

Story continues below advertisement

Report an error

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨