IDF court hears request to remove gag on case of officer who died mysteriously

Following outcry, prosecutors say family of the serviceman who died in military prison can see the charges against him, paving way for partial removal of the censorship on the case

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Benny Kuznitz, attorney for the family of a Military Intelligence officer who died in custody last month, speaks to reporters before a hearing in a military court in IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv on June 7, 2021. (Flash90)
Benny Kuznitz, attorney for the family of a Military Intelligence officer who died in custody last month, speaks to reporters before a hearing in a military court in IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv on June 7, 2021. (Flash90)

Prosecutors told a military court they were prepared to let the family of an intelligence officer who died under unclear circumstances in a military prison know the charges against him on Monday, amid plans to partially remove the court-issued gag orders and military censorship of the controversial case.

The officer, whose identity cannot be published by media outlets despite his name and photograph being widely shared on social media, was found last month in serious condition in his cell in the military’s newly built Neve Tzedek prison, where he’d been imprisoned as he awaited trial, and was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. A cause of death has not yet been officially determined, though military officials indicated that it appeared to be suicide.

The officer was indicted in September 2020 but had not been convicted. Nearly all details of the case — including the charges against him — were barred from publication under two court-issued gag orders plus an order from the military censor. The vacuum created by the draconian silencing measures led to widespread speculation about the nature of the officer’s alleged crimes and conspiracy theories regarding the manner of his death.

This sparked an outcry throughout Israeli media against the censorship, noting that it was both ineffectual, in that it did not prevent the officer’s identity from being widely published, and damaging, allowing for wild conjecture about the affair.

A number of Israeli media outlets filed an appeal with the military against the gag orders and the family of the officer requested additional information about the case, the hearings for which were held in the IDF’s Tel Aviv headquarters, known as the Kirya, on Monday morning.

“The name of the departed officer has been published on the internet and on social media, along with his photograph and a description of his position, along with — of course — conspiracy theories stretching from here to there. Because of these circumstances, the position of the family is not the only consideration to consider. Inaccurate facts are being published and these particularly are able to harm national security,” the attorney representing Israeli media, Yaron Hanin, told the court.

The family wants to know what happened to their son… They want to know who’s responsible for this and how this happened, and it’s their right to know that

However, family members of the officer opposed the lifting of the court-issued gag order, arguing through their attorney that the military was planning to release only details of the case that supported its claims and that they had yet not been able to even see the indictment against him.

“The family wants to know what happened to their son. At the end of the day, there’s an officer — it doesn’t matter what crimes are attributed to him — who was found dead in a military prison. They want to know who’s responsible for this and how this happened, and it’s their right to know that,” the family’s attorney, Benny Kuznitz, told reporters before the hearing.

Kuznitz maintained that while the family understood that aspects of the case concerning the charges against the officer may need to be kept classified, the military should be transparent about the investigation into his death.

Military prosecutors acknowledged that the censorship had failed to prevent information from being widely published online and had contributed to reckless conspiracy theories about the case.

“Our request to permit the publication of additional aspects of the case takes into account the significant changes that have happened recently, particularly in recent days. I am referring to reports in publications in Israel and around the world, some of which violate the gag order or did not meet it. Some of them present misleading information and presenting this misleading information has security-related consequences,” the military prosecutor on the case, Lt. Col. Matan Solomosh, told the court.

“Circumstances have been created in which there are not only reports that may damage national security, but also inaccurate — to say the least — representations about the officer, may his memory be blessed,” Solomosh said.

Solomosh said the military intended to show the officer’s family the charge sheet against him later on Monday, save for a small number of details that were particularly sensitive.

Kuznitz, the family’s attorney, argued that the specific details that the military planned to release were chosen out of self-interest.

“The details that they want to publish are trying to form a narrative. The details that they have written are totally misleading about the motivations of the officer. This young man won a number of Israeli defense prizes; that shouldn’t be noted? The pressure to allow publication of additional details is coming from an unclear source,” Kuznitz said.

The case involving the officer has been compared to what was dubbed the Prisoner X Affair, in which an Australian-Israeli dual national Ben Zygier was found dead in prison in what was ruled a suicide as he awaited trial on security-related charges.

The relatives of the intelligence officer who died last month have expressed doubt that he committed suicide and claimed that the military had attempted to delete the officer’s social media history from the past few years.

The soldier was described by people who worked with him as a computer prodigy, beginning to work in programming as a teenager. The Israeli news outlet Hamakom Hachi Ham Bagehenom reported this week that the officer had received the military’s lowest possible score for emotional capabilities and the highest possible score for technical capabilities.

As the soldier died in a Military Police-run prison, his death will be investigated by the IDF’s internal affairs unit.

The military’s nearly completed Prison 10 complex, built to replace the Israel Defense Forces’ existing British Mandate-era prisons. (Israel Defense Forces)

The designers of the prison where the officer had been held, Neve Tzedek, told reporters when the facility opened that it was specifically constructed to make it difficult for inmates to commit suicide, with closed-circuit cameras throughout the structure and specially designed fittings to prevent people from being able to hang themselves.

“The officer was under arrest for many months,” one relative told Israel’s Channel 12 news. “He knew his sister was on the way to the delivery room and that it was the first grandchild for his parents. Under those circumstances, it is unthinkable that specifically on that joyous and important day for the family he would choose to end his life.”

According to the family, in addition to not releasing information about the case to the public, or even to the family, the army has deleted much of the officer’s social media record going back as far as 2018, the Haaretz newspaper reported.

A relative of the officer, not identified in the report, told the newspaper that “the anger is at the attempt to disappear a person who died in military prison.”

“We don’t know anything. To this day no one has explained to us what happened,” the relative said. “The whole way that the army is behaving looks like an attempt to hide their failures. How can it be that they are trying to wipe out a person in this way?”

Family members said that on the eve of the Shavuot festival, May 16, hours before his death, the officer had called his parents. The family sources said he didn’t sound distressed and asked them to bring him clothes on their next visit, other personal items, and treats to tide him over during his time in prison. The family also noted his previous relocation from one prison to a newer facility “was good for him” and he was in a positive mindset.

There was also said to be anger on the part of the family at the way the officer’s commanders and friends abandoned him following his arrest.

However, before his funeral, some of the officer’s commanders asked to attend but the family refused, Haaretz reported. The family said that since the funeral, no senior IDF officials have come to visit the family to discuss the officer’s death.

The soldier was given an autopsy to determine the cause of death and a pathologist on behalf of the family was at the autopsy as well as from the army’s information security unit, Haaretz reported.

The family is still waiting for the results of the autopsy.

The serviceman was buried in a civilian cemetery plot and will not be recognized as a fallen soldier. The IDF said this was the case as the soldier had been formally discharged from the army while in prison and was thus not eligible for a military funeral.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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