Being away from his growing family ‘may have been factor in Zygier’s suicide’

Australian reporter who spoke several times with Mossad man says Zygier told him nothing that could have justified his arrest

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Tombstone of Ben Zygier at Chevra Kadisha Jewish Cemetery in Melbourne, Australia (photo credit: AP/Andrew Brownbill)
Tombstone of Ben Zygier at Chevra Kadisha Jewish Cemetery in Melbourne, Australia (photo credit: AP/Andrew Brownbill)

The fact that Ben Zygier, the Mossad agent who committed suicide in Ramle’s Ayalon Prison on December 15, 2010, had become a father for the second time while he was in jail may have been a factor in his suicide, Jason Koutsoukis, the Australian journalist who spoke by telephone to Zygier at least three times in the months before his death, said Wednesday.

Jason Koutsoukis (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jason Koutsoukis (photo credit: Courtesy)

Koutsoukis, who said some in the Australian media are skeptical that Zygier indeed killed himself, told The Times of Israel he was inclined to accept the official Israeli account — “though there are a lot of things that are suspicious” — and that the birth of the second of his two daughters might have been a factor in Zygier’s jail suicide. (Koutsoukis said he believed Zygier’s second daughter was born very shortly before he died; another source, however, stated firmly Thursday that this was not the case, and that the baby girl was born in the summer of 2010.)

“The guy was all alone in prison,” Koutsoukis noted. His second child had been born. “He’s been told he’s facing 10 years in jail… His [Mossad] dream is over… He thinks, ‘That’s it,’ you know,” said Koutsoukis.

The alternative, that the Israeli authorities had Zygier killed, said Koutsoukis, simply didn’t make sense. There would be no reason for Israel to do so, and every reason not to. “He’d said he was going to fight the charges, but he couldn’t have done any harm [to Israeli security]. His trial would have been in camera.

“People can be ruthless in matters of state interest and national security,” Koutsoukis allowed. “But this guy’s one of your own. They don’t do that to Hamas operatives. Why do that to Ben Zygier?”

Noting that Zygier’s family “is not saying a word,” he added, “I guess they trust what they were told.”

Koutsoukis said he has no clear idea why Zygier was arrested, but is convinced it had nothing to do with their conversations. He referred to reports that Zygier was indiscreet about the Mossad among colleagues at his law firm in Melbourne. “I told him I was a journalist. I’m the last person he’d speak to… He must have talked to someone else; I don’t think it had anything to do with me. Israeli intelligence would have known what I knew.”

Koutsoukis was the journalist who on February 27, 2010, published an article in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper, headlined ASIO in fresh Israel spy probe,” which reported that the Australian Security Intelligence Organization was “investigating at least three dual Australian-Israeli citizens whom it suspects of using Australian cover to spy for Israel.”

No alleged agents were named in the piece, but one of the three was Zygier, with whom Koutsoukis had spoken “three or four times” by telephone, he told The Times of Israel.

Melbourne-born Zygier, 34 — who hanged himself with a wet sheet from the shower in his cell bathroom, according to an official Israeli investigation partially declassified for publication on Tuesday — told him “nothing” in those phone calls, Koutsoukis said, and there was no aspect of their brief conversations that could possibly have justified Zygier’s arrest, much less the 10-year jail term for “serious” crimes he was reportedly facing.

Koutsoukis said he spoke with Zygier in December 2009, January 2010, and days before Zygier’s February 24, 2010, arrest. “He was very easy to track down,” he said.

Detailing how the story came about, Koutsoukis said he had been tipped off by a source in Canberra about the alleged use of Australian passports by Zygier and the two other dual Israeli-Australian citizens to carry out spy activities, and was told that Zygier had used his Australian passport to enter Iran several times, but that Zygier flatly denied this.

“He knew who I was when I called him,” said Koutsoukis. “I assume he’d seen my writing [in The Age]. He’d been living in Melbourne,” where Zygier was studying for an MBA at Monash University. In the first call, “he was polite, but he forcefully denied everything… He told me I’d got it completely wrong.” A month later, when Koutsoukis called again, “his denials became more irritated. He said, ‘Leave me alone, get lost, stop harassing me.’ And I thought I should leave him alone.”

Koutsoukis said he spoke to a second of the three alleged Mossad agents — a British-born man, named in foreign reports as David Z., whose family moved to Australia when he was child, and who was said to have changed the name in his British and Australian passports — and that this man was equally vehement, and more curt, in his denials. “He cut me off very quickly.” Koutsoukis said British intelligence was working with the Australian security authorities on this case. “Someone in British intelligence was going to speak to him.”

Koutsoukis never managed to find the third of the alleged Mossad agents, named in foreign reports as Paul Y.

(When Zygier handed in his old passports to the Australian authorities to exchange them for new documents, under a new name, as permitted under Australian law, they were “filled with Iranian entry visas,” a Der Spiegel article reported on Tuesday. “Paul Y. spent a lot of time in Syria, Iran, Egypt and Dubai,” this article added. “David Z., too, travelled to Iran several times. That wasn’t just evident from his passport stamps. During one trip in 2004, he sought help from the Australian consulate in Tehran.”)

After he’d hit a dead end with Zygier and the alleged British-born agent, Koutsoukis said, and because the allegations that had been leaked to him hadn’t been confirmed in any way, “the paper wasn’t keen to publish the story.”

This, he said, irritated the Canberra source of the leaks, who “wanted the story published” and who called the newspaper to ask why it had not appeared. “They were pushing us,” he said. “They were pretty frustrated that the story hadn’t appeared.”

Indeed, if it hadn’t been for late January 2010’s alleged Mossad assassination in Dubai of Hamas weapons dealer Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, and the subsequent reports that some of the Mossad operatives involved had traveled on Australian passports, his story would never have appeared. “Without Dubai, they wouldn’t have published it,” Koutsoukis said flatly. “We went cold on the story.”

When the news of alleged Mossad use of Australian passports broke in February 2010, Koutsoukis happened to be on assignment in Istanbul. He was told by his editors to hurry back to his base at the time in Jerusalem. “I got back on February 25 — as it turns out, the day after Zygier was arrested,” he said.

Having written his article, he said, “I emailed it 36 hours before it was published to the ASIO.” Why did he do that? “We wanted to give them the opportunity to say ‘You can’t publish this,'” he said. “To be extra careful. I was concerned we might be putting someone in danger,” he added, “though obviously we didn’t use the names [of Zygier and the other two alleged agents].” The ASIO “said thank you for the opportunity but no comment — which is rare; usually they wouldn’t respond at all.

“The person who leaked me information,” added Koutsoukis, “it was clear they wanted the story published.” Because of the alleged abuse of Australian passports, and consequent potential danger to other Australians? Maybe, said Koutsoukis, stressing, though, that he just didn’t know.

The leaks on the alleged Israeli agents were not “a coordinated” effort by the director-general of the ASIO, he said. “It was a rogue guy, an individual who wanted to expose Zygier,” he said. Why? “I don’t know.”

Koutsoukis said he was “sure” Zygier told his commanders about “every conversation that we had,” and that, just as Zygier told him nothing, he did not believe Zygier spilled any information to anybody else in the media or the Australian authorities.

Koutsoukis said that, “in hindsight,” there were a lot of aspects of the case “that just don’t fit.” He wondered why Zygier would have been studying at university in Melbourne in 2008-9, having reportedly been recruited by the Mossad years earlier. “What was he doing there? It’s not an intelligence hub. He was befriending students from the Gulf, but they were students. I can’t imagine he would have been on to anyone important.”

The article, which quoted Australian intelligence sources, appeared on February 27, and that was that, as far as Koutsoukis was concerned. “We’d published all we could reasonably publish; we weren’t going to publish the names, and that seemed to be it. I was never told he was arrested. I didn’t know he’d died.

“When the story broke [earlier this month], I thought ABC had it wrong. They said he was arrested in early 2010. I said to myself, ‘I was talking to him in early 2010.’ Then I saw the picture of his gravestone.”

(This article was updated on February 21.)

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