Canberra seeks answers from Israel on Zygier affair

Foreign Minister Bob Carr asks Jerusalem to aid in investigation into arrest and death of Australian national

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr speaks during a news conference at the annual Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012, in Perth, Australia. (photo credit: AP/Matt Rourke)
Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr speaks during a news conference at the annual Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012, in Perth, Australia. (photo credit: AP/Matt Rourke)

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia has asked Israel to explain the mysterious death of an Australian-Israeli citizen and alleged Israeli spy in an Israeli prison two years ago, the foreign minister said on Sunday.

Foreign Minister Bob Carr last week ordered his department to report on its handling of the case of the man dubbed Prisoner-X in the media, who died in an Israeli prison in December 2010.

Carr had initially said his Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had been unaware that the prisoner — who was born Ben Zygier, had an Australian passport in the name of Ben Allen and was also known as Ben Alon, had been in custody until his Australian family asked for his body to be repatriated.

But Carr corrected the record and ordered the departmental internal investigation on Wednesday after discovering that Australian intelligence officers had alerted some department officials 10 months earlier that the Australia-born Israel resident has been arrested on serious national security charges.

Carr said on Sunday that Israel had been asked to contribute to his department’s investigation report.

“We have asked the Israeli government for a contribution to that report,” Carr told reporters.

“We want to give them an opportunity to submit to us an explanation of how this tragic death came about,” he said.

The Australian Broadcasting Corp. has reported that Zygier was a Mossad intelligence service agent who hanged himself in a supposedly suicide-proof solitary confinement cell.

The Australian foreign minister at the time of Zygier’s death, government lawmaker and former prime minister Kevin Rudd, has refused to say when he became aware of Zygier’s arrest and death.

But Rudd urged the government to consider taking action against Israel as it did in 2010 when an Australian investigation concluded that Israel had counterfeited four Australian passports used by a suspected hit squad that murdered a Hamas official in Dubai in January that year. In May 2010, Australia expelled a member of Israeli’s embassy in retaliation.

“The tradition of this government has to be robust on these matters, even with a country with whom we’ve had the friendliest of relationships going back to the foundation of Israel in 1947,” Rudd told Sky News television.

Australia’s Fairfax Media reported last week that Zygier was one of at least three dual Australian-Israeli citizens being investigated by the main Australian spy agency ASIO in early 2010 over suspicions that they were spying for Israel.

Critics have accused the Israeli government of trying to cover up the affair and are demanding a full investigation, fueling a debate about balancing national security and freedom of information in a country that prides itself as a vibrant democracy.

The sensational saga has dominated public discourse in Israel since it was first reported by ABC on Tuesday last week.

Despite a whirlwind of foreign media reports easily accessible on the Internet, Israel maintained a gag order on the case for 24 hours. Late Wednesday, Israel acknowledged parts of the story, saying it had held a dual Israeli citizen under a false name for security reasons, and that he died in prison in 2010 from an apparent suicide.

The Israeli announcement did not identify the man and left key questions unanswered: What crime was Zygier accused of? Why was he confined to severe isolation? How did he commit suicide when he was under 24-hour surveillance? And why was the case hidden from the public for more than two years, even after it was reported in Australia?

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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