Canberra simmers over report Australian Mossad agent killed himself in jail

Foreign minister orders inquiry into diplomats’ handling of ‘Prisoner X’ affair, which Australian TV claims involved a Melbourne native spying for Israel

Ben Zygier (photo credit: Screenshot ABC TV via YouTube)
Ben Zygier (photo credit: Screenshot ABC TV via YouTube)

Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr ordered an internal investigation Wednesday into his ministry’s handling of an Australian prisoner who reportedly committed suicide in an Israeli jail in 2010.

According to an Australian television report on Tuesday, the prisoner, Melbourne-native Ben Zygier, was a Mossad agent. He was found hanging by a noose by guards in Ayalon Prison in Ramle in 2010, and the case became known as the “Prisoner X” affair.

Australia's foreign minister, Bob Carr, on a recent visit to Israel (Photo credit: Yossi Zamir)
Australia’s foreign minister, Bob Carr, on a recent visit to Israel (Photo credit: Yossi Zamir)

Carr ordered the investigation after it became clear that the Australian Embassy in Tel Aviv had been informed of Zygier’s jailing but the information had not been transferred to the proper channels, according to Australian press reports.

Carr said that his office only became aware of the prisoner when the man’s family asked for assistance in bringing the body back to Australia.

“The Australian Embassy in Tel Aviv was unaware of this Australian’s detention until his death was reported by his family, who requested repatriation of his remains,” Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade confirmed in a statement Wednesday. “The family has not asked for any further representations.”

The probe that Carr demanded on Wednesday is to determine why that information was not passed on at the time.

According to the report on Australia’s ABC television, Zygier went by the alias Ben Alon in Israel. The channel reported he hanged himself in a cell that had been specially designed for Yigal Amir, the Jewish ultranationalist who assassinated then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

The Australian channel reported Zygier emigrated to Israel in 2000, and was 34 years-old when he took his own life on December 15, 2010. He was married to an Israeli woman with whom he had two children.

Zygier also held an Australian passport under the name Ben Allen, according to the report.

The broadcast on Tuesday spurred a number of Knesset members to call for the gag on the case to be lifted and an investigation launched into why somebody was arrested in secret.

MK Ahmad Tibi (Ra’am-Ta’al) asked Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman to respond to reports that “an Australian citizen who was being held in Israel under an assumed name committed suicide in jail.”

Neeman said the matter was not part of his purview, adding that questions over such matters should be out to the minister of public security. Still, said Neeman, “there is no doubt that if these claims are correct, this has to be checked.”

The acting speaker of the Knesset, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, told MKs that the minister of public security, Yitzhak Aharonovitch, would be available in parliament on Wednesday, and that legislators could question him about the affair.

Aharonovitch canceled his appearance Wednesday morning, but did not give a reason.

Zahava Gal-on (Meretz) and Hadash MK Dov Khenin also protested the gagging of the case.

Former Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Liberman panned attempts by the MKs to blow the case wide open, saying they identified with terror groups and were trying to undermine the censor.

“It is first and foremost an attempt to damage Israel’s security,” Liberman told Israel Radio on Wednesday.

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