Knesset speaker rejected belated gag attempts in Prisoner X case

Knesset speaker rejected belated gag attempts in Prisoner X case

Hours after debate was broadcast on TV, Ben-Eliezer says defense officials asked him to keep parliamentary inquiries into Ben Zieger's detainment, death under wraps

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

Labor MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Labor MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The interim Knesset speaker overnight Tuesday rejected a request by Israel’s security establishment to help keep the story of an Australian-Israeli’s top secret imprisonment and eventual suicide out of the press — hours after the case had been discussed in parliament in a debate that was broadcast live on TV’s Knesset Channel and rebroadcast repeatedly on TV news programs.

MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor) told Maariv that “sources in the defense establishment” asked him to impose a gag order on inquiries that had been made in the Knesset on Tuesday afternoon by MKs Dov Hanin (Hadash), Zahava Gal-on (Meretz) and Ahmad Tibi (Ra’am Ta’al) into the top-secret detention of an Australian national known as “Prisoner X” and later identified in the Australian press as Ben Zygier.

“They called me at 3:30 a.m. and asked me one question — would I be prepared to gag the statements made by members of Knesset in the plenum,” he told Maariv Thursday.

Ben-Eliezer said he immediately responded in the negative.

Other Knesset sources reported that senior officials in the military censor’s office asked the Knesset’s sergeant-at-arms to distribute the sweeping gag order surrounding the Prisoner X case to MKs, but their request was also rebuffed. Other censor officials requested that the debate in the plenum not be broadcast, but they were informed that the debate had been aired live according to the law governing the Knesset’s public television channel.

The broadcast of the questions from the MKs prompted a torrent of reports on the episode from Israeli media, which had previously been unable to circumvent the gag order on the existence of “Prisoner X.”

According to the 1982 law, the station broadcasts Knesset meetings “in order to allow accessibility to Knesset debates and its work, and foster civic awareness and strengthen democratic values.”

Israel on Wednesday admitted to a basic set of facts in the shadowy Prisoner X episode, confirming that a top-security inmate had indeed been held under an assumed name and committed suicide in 2010.

The Justice Ministry’s confirmation partially lifted a comprehensive gag order on the case. It made no mention of the prisoner’s name, but noted that he and his family had been provided proper legal counsel and that he had gone through the official judicial system before being imprisoned.

Australia’s foreign minister said Thursday that his government was notified through Australian security channels of the arrest of an Australian-Israeli citizen in Israel in 2010 on serious security charges months before the man died in prison. Canberra said it received guarantees from Israel that he “would be treated in accordance with his lawful rights as an Israeli citizen.”

According to an Australian television report on Tuesday, Zygier was a Mossad agent whose body was found hanging by a noose by guards in Ayalon Prison in Ramle on December 15, 2010. Zygier reportedly immigrated to Israel in 2000, and was 34 years old when he took his own life. He was married to an Israeli woman with whom he had two children.

The Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday revealed that, based on sleuthing conducted by one of its reporters in 2010, Australian intelligence had investigated Zygier on suspicion that he had used his Australian passport to spy for Israel.

The Israeli statement acknowledging the affair confirmed that Prisoner X was an Israeli citizen who was also in possession of a foreign passport, and said that he was held under a false name for security reasons.

“The prisoner was found dead in his cell two years ago, and the president of the Rishon Lezion Magistrates’ Court, Judge Dafna Baltman Kadrai, who was appointed to investigate the circumstances of his death, determined that it was indeed suicide, and ordered the prosecution to look into possible negligence,” the statement said.

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