Israel held a second ‘Prisoner X,’ report reveals

Israel held a second ‘Prisoner X,’ report reveals

Second inmate had already been convicted, not clear if still in jail; probe of Zygier’s death finds suicide could have been thwarted, but cell cameras weren’t monitored

Ben Zygier in IDF uniform (YouTube screenshot)
Ben Zygier in IDF uniform (YouTube screenshot)

A second anonymous inmate was at one time secretly held in an Israeli prison in conditions similar to those of Ben Zygier, the infamous “Prisoner X,” according to new details from the investigation of Zygier’s death that were cleared for publication Tuesday.

Zygier, a Mossad operative from Melbourne, Australia, was arrested in January 2010 on serious security-related charges. He was jailed in secrecy under the name Prisoner X until he committed suicide 10 months later. The case was shrouded in secrecy until the Australian Broadcasting Corporation blew the lid off it in February.

Tuesday’s new information revealed that the second prisoner had already been convicted at the time of his incarceration, but did not say what his crimes were or whether he has since been released. Yedioth Ahronoth reported that he may have been an Israeli citizen with a security background.

He was serving his sentence in Block 13 on the Ayalon Prison, while Zygier was held in Block 15, both high-security units.

The investigation also revealed a series of failures by the Israeli Prison Service that enabled Zygier to hang himself with a wet sheet in his cell bathroom in December 2010. A prosecutor’s report released in April said that there was insufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against the service or any of its personnel.

The Zygier family is currently in talks with the Israeli government over a financial settlement with estimates putting the amount discussed at $1.5 million (NIS 5.5 million). As part of that ongoing case, the attorneys for the Zygier family have requested a thorough investigation into the circumstances surrounding Zygier’s death.

The new details released Tuesday were based on the testimonies of the commander of Ayalon Prison, the shift commander, and prison intelligence officers. Among the most damning revelations was that the security cameras in Zygier’s cell had not been repaired despite the fact that they were known to be faulty.

Specifically, Camera 116, which was to record all that went on in the bathroom, did not send the images to the command and control center of the prison, but rather only to the supervisor’s office.

Citing a manpower shortage, the supervisor on duty, who was specifically supposed to monitor Zygier, testified that at 5:52 p.m. he left his office to sit in the command and control center, where he had to help watch several high-security cells at the same time.

From 6:00 until 7:40, only four people were manning the command center, rather than the required five. Zygier entered the bathroom for the last time at 6:45 p.m. At 8:19 p.m. his lifeless body was discovered.

The three cameras in Block 15 were long overdue to be upgraded, having been in place since the incarceration there of Yigal Amir, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin.

According to the report, prepared by Justice Daphna Blatman Kedrai, president of the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court, on the day of his suicide Zygier received a visit from his wife who informed him that she was leaving him.

The newly released information also revealed that Zygier’s mother had a premonition that her son would kill himself, which she acted on. Zygier’s mother sent an email to attorney Moshe Mazor asking that he look into her son’s condition and ask the prison staff to be extra vigilant. Mazor spoke to Zygier, who tried to put the lawyer at ease, even discussing his plans for the future, but Mazor remained unconvinced. The lawyer asked a security guard to watch closely over Zygier, stressing that he was under great pressure.

According to Zygier’s lawyers, the guard did not pass the request on to any other prison officials.

Zygier’s attorney, Avigdor Feldman, who was the last person to meet with the prisoner before his suicide, confirmed to Army Radio that he knew of the second prisoner who was held in similar conditions to those of his client.

According to Feldman, both Zygier and the second secret inmate were Israeli citizens who held very high security clearance in the intelligence community. Moreover, Feldman said that “their operations point to a failure in security that can effectively make it a crime to keep secrets or do the other things that need to be done.”

MK Miri Regev (Likud) said she intends to hold a meeting of the Knesset House Committee, which she chairs, and to summon representatives of the security establishment and Israel Prison Services to discuss the lessons of from the Zygier affair.

Other parliamentarians voiced concern over the new revelations.

Meretz party head Zahava Gal-on called the report “grave and disturbing.” She said that when the Zygier affair was first reported in February, she asked on the Knesset floor if there were other secret prisoners, and the Minister of Public Security (Yitzhak Aharonovitch) “without blinking said, ‘There are no secret detainees in Israel.’“

Gal-on went on to say that “in a democracy there can be no secret arrests… furthermore, in a democracy the government does not knowingly lie to the Knesset and the public.”

Nachman Shai (Labor) said, “Knowing that another prisoner was held under the same conditions as Prisoner X reinforces the need for a thorough investigation by the state comptroller.” He said that the Zygier affair “raised many painful questions that have not been answered” and that the fact that “other prisoners are held in such conditions is chilling and scary.”

Feldman maintained that Zygier’s suicide attempt was a cry for help and that he relied on the prison security system to rescue him. Zygier, he said, could not have been aware of the non-functioning video cameras in his cell, or of the diminished manpower that prevented one person from being responsible solely for the goings-on in his own cell.

JTA contributed to this report.

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