Zygier killed himself in cell bathroom, Israel TV says

Lawyer who met Mossad spy two days earlier says he ‘absolutely’ wasn’t suicidal, but that he’d spent many harrowing months in solitary confinement

A scene from the Australian television program on Zygier (photo credit: screen capture/ABC News via YouTube)
A scene from the Australian television program on Zygier (photo credit: screen capture/ABC News via YouTube)

Australian-born Mossad spy Ben Zygier managed to kill himself despite being held in a high-security jail cell by doing so in the bathroom, Israeli TV reported Thursday.

There were no cameras in the bathroom, which explained the lack of video evidence for the suicide, despite the fact that Zygier was reportedly on suicide watch and held in a high-tech cell with 24-hour surveillance, according to a report on Channel 2.

The report, which cited unnamed members of the rescue crew called to the prison, detailed that nothing that could be used to commit suicide was found near his body. The sources added that Zygier was close to death for several minutes outside his cell before they determined he had died.

Israel’s Channel 10 news on Thursday night read out what it said was a transcript of the phone call made by officials at Ramle’s Ayalon Prison to the Magen David Adom emergency services on the night of the suicide, requesting medical assistance. “He’s hanged himself,” the caller reportedly said, without naming the victim. “We need a mobile intensive care unit.”

The Israeli defense lawyer who met with Zygier in jail two days before his suicide on December 15, 2010, said Thursday that the prisoner was “absolutely not” suicidal. But lawyer Avigdor Feldman also noted that Zygier had been held for eight or nine months in solitary confinement in a cell designed for Israel’s most dangerous criminals, and that this could play havoc with a prisoner’s psyche.

Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser tweeted Thursday that the notion that Zygier had been arrested because he was about to spill Mossad secrets was “plausible,” and that suicide was “therefore unlikely.”

A close family friend also said Zygier was “the last person on earth” who would commit suicide.

Interviewed by Israel’s Channel 2 on Thursday evening amid conflicting reports over what exactly Zygier had done to merit his incarceration, Feldman confirmed that the 34-year-old father of two was facing serious charges that could have seen him jailed for “a very long time.”

Ben Zygier at his wedding (photo credit: screen capture Channel 10)
Ben Zygier at his wedding (photo credit: screen capture Channel 10)

Asked whether Zygier seemed suicidal, Feldman said “Absolutely not.” He elaborated that the two spoke “for an hour or two” about the case, and that Zygier was “not closed inside himself, and he didn’t burst into tears… I didn’t get the impression that here is a man who is about to take his own life.”

Nonetheless, Feldman added, the fact that Zygier was being held in a cell where the likes of Yigal Amir — who assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 — had been incarcerated could have been a factor. Extended solitary confinement could profoundly influence inmates in such circumstances, said Feldman, noted that he had in the past represented Mordechai Vanunu, the former Dimona nuclear technician who sold the so-called “secrets of Israel’s nuclear arsenal” to London’s Sunday Times in the 1980s, and was held for years in solitary confinement after being convicted of treason.

Extended solitary confinement could cause prisoners “to become delusional” and to “lose touch with reality,” Feldman said, although he again stressed that “I didn’t get that sense” with Zygier. Rather, the prisoner “was thinking of the future, thinking of his family.”

But Feldman noted that he couldn’t say what went on “after I left, at night… Did someone else speak to him.”

Feldman also said that Zygier did not come across as a criminal, a traitor, “or someone who would endanger the security of the state.” Nonetheless, he was facing serious charges, and had to choose between a plea bargain that would see him serve many years in jail, or a court case where he might lose and face a still longer sentence, the lawyer said.

In an Army Radio interview earlier Thursday, Feldman said Zygier had been told his crimes were such that would be “ostracized” by his family.

To Channel 2, he added that Zygier’s other legal advisers were encouraging him to take the plea bargain, and that “it depressed him” to think that he would not be able to clear his name in court if he did so. Zygier had asked to meet with Feldman, indeed, because he wanted another lawyer’s input on his legal dilemma.

Attorney Avigdor Feldman (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Attorney Avigdor Feldman (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Two days after their conversation, Feldman said, he was telephoned with the news that Zygier had committed suicide.

Earlier, on Army Radio, Feldman said Zygier “obviously was deeply stressed about the legal proceedings… and he insisted upon his innocence. Let’s not forget, the man was not convicted of anything. He had been charged, but the case had not come to court. He had been told that he faced very lengthy imprisonment, and would be ostracized by his family, and that impacts on the soul of a man.”

Legal sources quoted by Channel 10 on Thursday night said the trial had in fact begun, but it was not clear how far it had proceeded.

In an Australian ABC TV broadcast on Wednesday, a friend of the Zygier family in Melbourne said he thought Zygier was “the last person on Earth” to commit suicide. “There were whispers about Mossad and there were whispers about him being in detention and something went horribly wrong,” said Henry Greener, who presents a Jewish program on Melbourne community television.

Zygier “was very happy, he was in a relationship and married and was having children and so I thought everything was Achy Jake with Ben,” Greener said. “He seemed to be really happy living in Israel, loved being there and was very involved. He had a social conscience, and I think to him it was very important to be living there because there were so many social issues going on in Israel.”

But Greener added that “something went horribly wrong somewhere along the line in the beginning of 2010 where there is the passport issue — the Dubai assassination that occurred, and apparently Ben was put under suspicion as one of the people who might have been involved in that whole affair… I think it was a very personal thing where Ben did something and it wasn’t well-received by his superiors and he went into jail for it. Unfortunately he didn’t come out alive.”

Noted Greener, “He would be the last person on Earth that I would guess would take his own life, especially being in a high-security prison where there [was] nothing to hang from. Very mysterious.”

Army Radio has reported that the Melbourne-born Zygier, who immigrated to Israel in 2000 but went back to Australia in 2009 ostensibly to study for a master’s degree, may have been suspected by the Israeli authorities of treason.

Australian news reports claimed Thursday that he may have been about to spill Mossad secrets to the Australians, while an unconfirmed Kuwaiti newspaper report claimed he betrayed the Mossad to the authorities in Dubai after the Mossad’s reported January 2010 assassination of Hamas weapons dealer Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel.

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