Second ‘Prisoner X’ held for ‘far more serious crime’

Second ‘Prisoner X’ held for ‘far more serious crime’

Officials dismiss concerns over policy that cloaks the existence of high-profile inmates held for national security offenses

The Ayalon Prison complex in Ramle, central Israel (AP/Ariel Schalit)
The Ayalon Prison complex in Ramle, central Israel (AP/Ariel Schalit)

An anonymous inmate who is apparently still being held in an Israeli prison under conditions similar to those of Ben Zygier, aka “Prisoner X,” was convicted of more serious offenses than those for which Zygier was on trial, according to Zygier’s attorney Avigdor Feldman.

In a radio interview, Feldman said the second prisoner was imprisoned over “much larger” issues than in Zygier’s case, and the crimes for which he was convicted were “far more serious.”

Zygier, a Mossad operative from Melbourne, Australia, was arrested in January 2010 on serious security-related charges. He was jailed 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.

The second inmate, whose existence was revealed in new details from the investigation of Zygier’s death that were cleared for publication Tuesday, was, like Zygier, a Jewish Israeli citizen who worked for one of the secret security services, Feldman said.

The newly revealed prisoner is likely still being held under 24-hour surveillance in isolation at Ayalon Prison under a false identity, his only contact with the outside world via security and intelligence personnel, according to Feldman.

Government officials on Wednesday dismissed accusations to the effect that withholding from the public information on the existence of such prisoners was an infringement of the prisoners’ human rights and the public’s right to know.

The gag order on the cases was “designed to prevent damage” to national security or the lives of Israeli operatives, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said, dismissing questions on the secrecy shrouding the circumstances of the two prisoners’ arrests as “efforts to turn this into a drama.”

“In Israel, prisoners don’t disappear without trial… those who were incarcerated enjoyed legal protection, and the families knew [about their circumstances],” she said. “There’s no way our people were made to vanish. This isn’t South America.”

The second “Prisoner X” was incarcerated over “a particularly grave case,” MK Avigdor Liberman, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, confirmed. “Israel respects the law, and those cases are under close supervision of the legal system and the parliament, through subcommittees of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense [Committee],” he added during a committee meeting on the subject.

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

Tuesday’s new information revealed that the second prisoner had already been convicted at the time of his incarceration, and 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.

Left-wing 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.”

Asher Zeiger contributed to this report.

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