Another layer has been added to Israel’s ‘Prisoner X’ spy story, as new details shed light on Ben Zygier’s dealings with Mossad. An Israeli lawyer says the man – who took his own life in a jail cell – did not seem like he was at risk of suicide.
Zygier’s associations with Mossad are still cloudy, as media agencies report different accounts of his previous work with the organization.
According to Kuwaiti newspaper Al Jarida, Zygier reportedly took part in the 2010 killing of Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mahbouh in Dubai and offered the government information about the operation in return for the United Arab Emirates’ protection.
Australia’s Fairfax Media reports that Australian security officials suspected Zygier may have been about to disclose Israeli intelligence operations – including the use of fraudulent Australian passports – to the Australian government or the media.
The Israeli government has not confirmed or denied Zygier’s association with Mossad. However, Zygier himself reportedly confided in at least two friends that he had been recruited by Mossad.
“He told me he’d just been recruited,” a friend close to Zygier told Haaretz. “I was in shock. It’s the sort of thing people usually joke about but I had no reason to doubt him at all.”
Zygier’s suicide has shed light on Mossad’s recruitment of foreign-born Jews who could spy under cover on their native passports.
Mossad has come under criticism many times for using the passports and identities of citizens of foreign countries. And despite repeated promises to stop the practices, it seems the organization is refusing to change its ways.
Just one year ago, The Times of London published two accounts of young men who had emigrated to Israel from Britain and France. During their IDF service, both men were approached by a woman who identified herself as a Mossad official who asked the gentlemen to “lend” their passports for about 18 months while they were still in the army. Once the men reclaimed their passports, they contained stamps from countries including Russia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey, Haaretz reports.
Zygier was one of at least three Australian-Israeli citizens under investigation by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization over suspicions of espionage for Israel, according to Australian media.
Canberra complained to Tel Aviv in 2010 after Dubai said forged Australian passports were used by the Mossad team. Mahbouh’s killers also had British, Irish, French, and German passports, according to authorities in the United Arab Emirates.
In at least seven cases, it turned out that the passports belonged to Jews who had emigrated to Israel from Britain and Germany. These people were unaware that their identities were being used by Mossad officials in Dubai, Haaretz reported. The identities of at least three Australians had also been used.
While media agencies report that Prisoner X was, in fact, 34-year-old Ben Zygier, the Israeli government has failed to mention Zygier by name – stating only that a man with dual citizenship was held under a false name for “security reasons.”
Attorney Avigdor Feldman, who met with Zygier a day before he committed suicide, said this very fact raised a red flag.
“I saw this as something inappropriate but I did not take legal measures, based on the assumption that he was in the good hands of the lawyers who were representing him,” he told Channel 10 Television.
Fedman said Zygier was charged with “grave crimes” and that there were ongoing negotiations for a plea bargain. He did not elaborate as to which “crimes” Zygier had allegedly committed, but said “his status was ‘detained until the completion of proceedings,'” Haaretz reported.
“His interrogators told him he could expect lengthy jail-time and be ostracized from his family and the Jewish community,” Feldman said. “There was no heart string they did not pull, and I suppose that ultimately brought about the tragic end.”
But despite Zygier’s situation, Feldman did not believe Zygier was at risk of taking his own life.
“To my mind, he sounded rational and focused and he spoke to the point. He did not display any special feeling of self-pity”, he said.
The attorney was hired by the prisoner’s family to help negotiate a plea bargain. During their meeting, Zygier maintained his innocence to Feldman, but was anxious about the trial.
“He was facing a judiciary crossroads and he asked me to give my opinion about his decision as well…he had been informed that he could very likely expect to be sentenced to an extremely lengthy prison term and to be shunned by his family – and this affects a person’s soul," said the attorney.
Feldman remains critical of how the authorities handled Zygier’s detention. “Those responsible for him should have taken clear steps to watch over him, especially because he was far from the public eye. The end of the affair is something that needs to be investigated.”
Yet, an Israeli court maintains that no rights were broken during the detention.
"The proceedings on the matter were followed by the most senior Justice Ministry officials and the prisoners' individual rights were kept, subject to the provisions set by law," the Israeli court statement said.
However, Israel's Justice Ministry says a court has ordered an inquiry into possible negligence in Zygier's death.
The fresh details come after the Israeli government eased a gag order relating to the case. It was lifted after activists, journalists, and politicians protested the order which prevented journalists from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) from reporting about Zygier.
The top-secret case has raised more questions than answers. Australia and Israel must now try to determine what circumstances caused 34-year-old Zygier to move to Israel, supposedly be recruited by Mossad, find himself detained in 2010, jailed secretly for months, and, uiltimately, take his own life.
Despite the new information, no concrete answers have been given by the Israeli government regarding why Zygier was detained, whether he was working for Mossad, or why he resorted to suicide. And of course the question on everyone’s minds remains: Why is it all such a big secret?