‘Zygier hung dead for an hour before jailers found him’

Prison guards reportedly fell asleep at the monitors and didn’t notice their charge had committed suicide

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

Ben Zygier’s body dangled immobile for an hour before prison wardens noticed he had committed suicide in the cell’s bathroom.

The imprisoned Australian born Mossad agent was dead for more than an hour before rescue crews arrived, and during that time “for some reason the jailers did not discern” that he had hanged himself with his bed sheet, sources who spoke to Yedioth Ahronoth said Thursday. Their statements refuted those of anonymous Magen David Adom paramedics who said Zygier was close to death for several minutes before they pronounced him dead.

A recently published investigation’s findings determined that Zygier hanged himself with a wet sheet in the shower of his cell’s bathroom at 8:19 p.m. on December 15, 2010.
The cause for the oversight was the fact that the two Ayalon Prison guards who were assigned to watch the four cameras monitoring Zygier “had fallen asleep” or “were preoccupied with something else,” various Israel Prison Service officials acknowledged to the paper.

In contradiction to prior reports, the high-tech cell in which the Mossad agent was imprisoned did have a camera running in the bathroom in which he committed suicide.

“One of the [four] cameras also monitored the shower stall in a manner that showed the prisoner’s head, but without invading his personal privacy,” the paper reported.

Moreover, Prisoner X, as Zygier was known by all but five senior members of the prison staff, did not undergo the psychiatric screening standard to newly admitted inmates, and was therefore not placed on suicide watch.

“Our professionals couldn’t determine the prisoner’s crisis because of the ban on uncovering things he would likely tell during the treatment,” the prison source said. “We couldn’t treat him like every other prisoner who receives professional assessment and treatment.”

An earlier report on Israel’s Channel 2 said Zygier was under constant surveillance because he was considered a suicide risk.

In total, four Prison Service employees are expected to face disciplinary action and perhaps criminal prosecution for their failure to prevent Zygier’s suicide.
According to a report in Maariv Wednesday, the four include a mid-ranking officer, an intelligence officer and two prison guards. The decision whether to indict them for criminal negligence is expected in the coming days.

A senior Prison Service official said Tuesday, following the release of details from a court investigation of Zygier’s death, “We hope the prosecution realizes that it is impossible to lay the entire blame, particularly not in the legal sense, on four people.” 

In her conclusions to the investigation published on Tuesday, Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court Judge Daphna Blatman Kedrai wrote that she “found evidence allegedly suggesting the culpability of officials in the Israel Prison Service.” She added that the responsibilities of the guards are “many and severe,” and that in this particular case they were particularly serious given the “cloak of secrecy, compartmentalization, and different gaps in the information.”

Special instructions, she added, had been provided to prevent suicide attempts, and those responsible for Zygier’s supervision were aware of the regulations. However, the instructions were not followed by the prison guards, she wrote, and Zygier used the “window of opportunity” to take his life.

Zygier, a Melbourne native and Mossad operative, was secretly arrested and jailed in early 2010. He was accused of revealing information to officers from Australia’s ASIO internal intelligence agency, including on a major upcoming operation in Italy, according to Australia’s ABC television. However, Israel said Tuesday that he had not revealed any such information to Australian authorities.

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