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Serviceman acted out of personal motivations, army says

IDF: Officer who mysteriously died in prison seriously harmed national security

Military scales back gag orders on highly classified, controversial case, but still bars publication of the suspect’s name and nature of his alleged crimes

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Illustrative. An Israeli military police officer, right, directs two imprisoned Israeli soldiers through a door at Prison Four, Israel's largest military prison, at the Tzrifin military base in central Israel on April 26, 2018. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Illustrative. An Israeli military police officer, right, directs two imprisoned Israeli soldiers through a door at Prison Four, Israel's largest military prison, at the Tzrifin military base in central Israel on April 26, 2018. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The intelligence officer who died under mysterious circumstances in a military prison last month was accused of causing significant damage to national security, and admitted to many of his crimes, the military said Monday, after partially removing the gag orders on the still heavily classified case.

Key details about the affair, including the officer’s identity and the exact nature of his alleged crimes, remain barred from publication under a court-issued gag order, backed by the military censor. This decision was upheld by a military court on Monday, following a hearing on the matter, despite the fact that the serviceman’s name and photograph have been widely shared online in recent days.

However, the military has permitted for publication that the officer served in a technological unit in Military Intelligence. Friends and coworkers of the officer have described him as an incredibly skilled computer programmer, a prodigy who began working in the field as a teenager.

According to the IDF, the officer was indicted in September 2020 and had been accused of “knowingly committing a number of actions that seriously harmed national security.”

“The officer cooperated in his interrogation and admitted to most of the acts he was accused of,” the military said.

The IDF maintained, however, that the soldier acted alone and did not commit the actions on behalf of a foreign government, for financial reasons or out of a specific ideology, but rather from unspecified “personal motivations.”

The officer was indicted on a number of security-related offenses and that additional weight was given to the charged against him in light of the “significant damage that was caused by his alleged crimes,” the military said.

The IDF decided to remove portions of the two gag orders regarding the case — one for details about the allegations against the officer and another about the circumstances surrounding his death — following a court hearing earlier in the day to address requests from his family and from media outlets, calling for details about the case to be released.

The attorney for the family of a Military Intelligence officer who died in prison attends a hearing at the military court at IDF headquarter in Tel Aviv, on June 7, 2021. (Flash90)

According to the IDF, the officer had access to a senior military defense attorney who had full access to information regarding the charges against him. He had not been convicted at the time of his death and was in the process of negotiating a plea deal, before the beginning of the evidentiary portion of his trial.

The hearings against him were held behind closed doors, though members of his family were allowed to be present during portions of the trial, the military said.

The officer was found in serious condition in his cell — which was under round-the-clock security camera surveillance — on the night between May 16 and 17, and he was pronounced dead in a nearby hospital a short time later, the military said.

Though an autopsy was performed — with a doctor on behalf of the family present — no official cause of death has yet been determined, according to the IDF.

Disputing recent claims to the contrary, the military said the officer was not in solitary confinement at the time of his death, but was inside a normal cell with other prisoners. He was also imprisoned under his real name, not a pseudonym as has occurred in some other cases involving allegations of severe national security crimes. The IDF added that the officer was able to speak to and see his family, as well as friends and comrades, while in prison.

Following the soldier’s death, two internal investigations were launched into the matter within the IDF Manpower Directorate, one of them looking at the specific case of the soldier and another looking more generally at the military’s prison system, specifically “prisoners with special characteristics,” the IDF said.

Ben Zygier in IDF uniform (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)
Ben Zygier in IDF uniform. (YouTube screenshot)

The case involving the officer has been compared to what was dubbed the Prisoner X Affair, in which 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.

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 Channel 12 news.

A relative of the officer told Haaretz 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 unnamed 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 called his parents. The family sources said he did not 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 Neve Tzedek “was good for him” and he was in a positive mindset.

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.

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