A prominent Israeli defense attorney on Thursday said that he had met with Ben Zygier, aka Prisoner X, in his cell two days before his death in December 2010. The lawyer, Avigdor Feldman, said Zygier, reportedly a Mossad agent suspected of treason, denied the “serious” charges he was facing and was considering a plea bargain.
Zygier appeared balanced and self-possessed, Feldman said. Zygier had been charged, and was “at a legal crossroads.” He already had lawyers, but he still sought out Feldman’s advice, Feldman said.
“I met with him in the place where he was being held” — Ramle’s top-security Ayalon Prison. “He wanted my input on the decision” about a plea bargain, Feldman said. “He was being held in detention pending the completion of legal proceedings, and a plea bargain was being negotiated with senior state prosecutors… I listened to him patiently… He seemed rational and focused… and not consumed by self-pity.”
Still, Feldman added that Zygier, who had reportedly been held for months in solitary confinement, “obviously was deeply stressed about the legal proceedings… and he insisted upon his innocence. Let’s not forget, the man was not convicted of anything. He had been charged, but the case had not come to court. He had been told that he faced very lengthy imprisonment, and would be ostracized by his family, and that impacts on the soul of a man.”
Two days later, Feldman said, he was told in a phone call that Zygier had committed suicide. Feldman criticized the authorities for failing to take the necessary steps to protect him, “particularly since he was out of the public eye.” Married to an Israeli woman, with two children, he was 34 when he died.
Army Radio has reported that the Melbourne-born Zygier, who immigrated to Israel in 2000 but went back to Australia in 2009 ostensibly to study for a master’s degree, may have been suspected by the Israeli authorities of treason. Australian TV said earlier this week that he was questioned by Australian national security services in 2009 over suspicions he was working for the Mossad, and Israeli TV news broadcasts on Wednesday carried conflicting reports as to whether he had confessed to the Australian authorities.
Israel’s Channel 10 said that his exposure — if the reported details of the case were accurate — could have serious implications for ongoing Mossad work, since countries such as Iran and Syria, which Zygier reportedly entered on behalf of the Mossad, would now be checking their records regarding whom he traveled with and met.
An Israeli court on Wednesday lifted parts of gag orders on the case dating back to March 2010 and confirmed that an Israeli man who held dual citizenship in an undisclosed country died in custody in 2010.
Identifying the man only as the Hebrew equivalent of John Doe, the court order said a judge ordered an investigation into his death. About six weeks ago, the court statement said, the investigation concluded that he had committed suicide. However, a judge has now asked the state to check for possible negligence.
Israel’s chief military censor revealed Thursday that the approval of Israel’s Supreme Court was sought, and won, in the bid to impose a gag order on the circumstances of Zygier’s imprisonment.
“This wasn’t examined by a young magistrate’s court judge,” Sima Vaknin-Gil told Army Radio, dismissing criticism to the effect that such gag orders were issued as a matter of course and without due process.
“It was examined at the highest levels,” she said. “I know all those who had to go explain the case, and I also know… how hard it was for them to clarify and explain” the need for such sweeping censorship, she said.
That gag order was breached on live television Tuesday evening, when three legislators used their immunity to lob queries at Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman regarding the circumstances of the affair.
They were swiftly rebuked by former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman and Likud-Beytenu MK Miri Regev, herself a former chief censor, who said they had “abused” their parliamentary rights and potentially harmed Israel’s national security. Perhaps surprisingly, however, the three MKs — Dov Hanin (Hadash), Zahava Gal-on (Meretz) and Ahmad Tibi (Ra’am Ta’al) — reportedly received backing from the chief of the Mossad, who said they were only doing their jobs.
“In a democratic country it’s unthinkable to impugn them” for seeking clarifications, Tamir Pardo reportedly told people in his inner circle on Wednesday. “We have our job, the courts have their job, and the parliamentarians have their job — and everyone should fulfill their job in good faith,” he was quoted by Yedioth Ahronoth as saying.
Unnamed government sources were cited in Israeli TV reports Wednesday night as saying Pardo was out of touch with modern media, and mistakenly believed it would be possible to prevent reporting of the story by utilizing court orders and military censorship.
In another curious wrinkle in the case, Israeli TV reported that Zygier had worked as a clerk in the international business department of one of Israel’s most prestigious law firms, Herzog Fox & Neeman. The firm is partially owned by Yaakov Neeman, the justice minister.
In his response to the MKs’ queries about the gag order Tuesday, Neeman said he knew nothing of the case but noted that any allegations, if true, should be investigated.
The Guardian reported that Zygier had worked for a Mossad front company in Europe that was selling electronic goods to Iran. Previous reports in Australia said he was also suspected for a time in connection with the assassination of senior Hamas operative Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh in Dubai.
Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr ordered an investigation into his department’s handling of Zygier’s detention and death. Still, Carr did not explicitly identify the man as Zygier or say why he was incarcerated and whether he worked for Mossad.
Carr said Australia had also received assurances from Israel at the time of the prisoner’s arrest that Zygier would have his choice of lawyer, that he was not being mistreated and that his family had been notified of his arrest.
“The Australian government relied on these assurances,” Carr said. “The Israeli government further advised the Australian government that the individual would be treated in accordance with his lawful rights as an Israeli citizen.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.