Ben Zygier, the suspected Mossad spy previously known only as Prisoner X, was “rational” and “balanced” the day before he apparently hanged himself in a maximum-security Israeli prison, one of his lawyers has said.
Avigdor Feldman told Israel’s Channel Ten that Australian-born Mr Zygier had been considering a plea bargain offered by prosecutors. “I met with a balanced person … who was rationally weighing his legal options,” said Mr Feldman, adding that his client denied the “serious” charges he was facing. The exact nature of the charges remains unknown.
On Wednesday, after Australia’s ABC TV aired a documentary revealing Prisoner X’s identity, Israel admitted for the first time that it had secretly detained a man with dual citizenship for security reasons. However, it did not explain how Mr Zygier, 34 – who emigrated to Israel in 2000, married an Israeli woman and fathered two children – managed to kill himself while under 24-hour surveillance in a cell designed to be “suicide-proof”.
The cell was built to hold Yigal Amir, the ultra-Zionist who assassinated then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Cameras inside the cell were supposed to be monitored around the clock, and Israeli newspapers have reported the room contained sensors to monitor temperature and heartbeat.
The Israeli Justice Ministry said that an inquiry had been ordered into possible negligence.
Mr Zygier’s family in Melbourne have declined to comment, but Harry Greener, a friend of Mr Zygier’s father, Geoffrey, a respected Jewish community leader, told Fairfax Media: “We all knew there was something suspicious and underhanded about Ben’s death.” Mr Greener said: “I think there should be justice for Ben, to find out what happened – because nobody really knows.” Mr Zygier had been a “friendly, warm, outgoing” person, he said, and his death had “gutted’ the Jewish community. Mr Zygier’s uncle, Willy, a musician, told ABC local radio in Melbourne that the saga was a “family tragedy”.
As the Australian government faced renewed pressure to explain its apparent failure to safeguard the welfare of one of its citizens, local media reported that Mr Zygier – known as Benjy – was one of at least three dual citizens suspected of using their Australian passports to travel to Lebanon, Syria and Iran on assignments for Mossad. Fairfax Media reported that before Mr Zygier’s arrest he and others were being investigated by Australia’s domestic intelligence agency, ASIO, whose suspicions had been aroused by them requesting new passports in Anglo-Australian names after emigrating to Israel. They allegedly used the passports to travel to Middle Eastern countries which bar Israelis and anyone with an Israeli passport stamp.
Austrlain media has suggested that Mr Zygier was jailed in Israel because he was going to reveal information about Mossad’s operations to the Australian authorities or the media.
The Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, told a parliamentary committee that officials – informed by ASIO of Mr Zygier’s arrest – had sought and received assurances that his legal and human rights would be respected.
However, the leader of the Australian Greens, Christine Milne, asked why the government handed “over the welfare of one of our citizens to the spooks”.