Secrets and lies – the double life of Prisoner X

Rumours swirl about 'Mossad man', Ben Zygier, found dead in Israeli jail

Jerusalem

He was "a double agent working for Iran"; he was "responsible for the botched operation in a Dubai hotel in 2010" in which Mossad agents killed a senior Hamas commander; he was "just a loud mouth who couldn't keep quiet" about being a member of Israel's secret service. These are some of the many theories about why Ben Zygier, or "Prisoner X" as he was known until last week, was held in Israel's most secure prison for a few months before apparently killing himself in December 2010. His detention was kept so secret that even his guards didn't know his name; his presumed crime so grave that even his family haven't gone public about his case.

Zygier's name, and indeed his existence, would not have been known had it not been for an investigation by Foreign Correspondent, a programme produced by Australia's ABC television, which unearthed details about the Israeli-Australian. They disclosed that his body was returned to his native Melbourne just before Christmas (and just after the birth of his second daughter) in 2010.

What Foreign Correspondent did not reveal was why Zygier was secretly jailed, a void that the Israeli government has not been eager to fill. So what exactly did this keen Zionist, a volunteer in the Israeli army, do to warrant such treatment? He was held in solitary confinement in the cell designed for Yigal Amir, the killer of the then Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and had access to nothing but a few books. Even Australian officials in Canberra admitted last week that they were unaware of Zygier's case, despite his status as an Australian national.

The lack of official information has inevitably been filled by speculation. Because of the timing, the first theory was that Zygier had been involved in the operation in Dubai to kill the Hamas agent Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in January 2010. Zygier was arrested just a month later.

Several countries were outraged when it was revealed that some of the Mossad agents had travelled on fake passports – indeed, Australia expelled an Israeli diplomat in the aftermath. Was Zygier responsible for the images of Mossad agents being captured by CCTV? Was he responsible for bungling the passports? Or, more seriously, did he get turned by domestic security agents, as a Kuwaiti newspaper suggested last week?

One of the men who took part in the Dubai mission was Joshua Daniel Bruce, almost certainly an alias. The picture in a forged passport identifying Bruce appears to be of a man about the same age as the then 34-year-old Zygier, and of the 26 suspects he bears the greatest resemblance to Zygier. But on Friday a forensic facial recognition report commissioned by Reuters showed that Zygier and Bruce are not the same person, but it does not entirely dismiss the idea that Zygier was somehow involved in the Mabhouh operation.

At the beginning of 2010, the Australian journalist Jason Katsoukis uncovered evidence that Zygier was one of three Israeli-Australians running a front company in Italy, which ostensibly sold electronic equipment, to Iran among others. Zygier denied being a Mossad agent when asked by Mr Katsoukis, but it seems likely that he was working on contacts within the Sunni group, Jundallah, which has launched attacks against the Shia Iranian government.

Could Zygier's incarceration be linked in some way to the arrest in February 2010 of Abdolmajid Rigi, the leader of Jundallah? Did Rigi blow Zygier's cover and tell Iranian officials about the operation in Italy? In an interview with the Iranian Press TV after his arrest, Rigi said that American and Israeli agents were trying to persuade Jundallah to take their fight to Tehran. Rigi was eventually hanged, but what did he tell the authorities in Iran first?

Even if Zygier had compromised Rigi, would that have warranted the tough treatment Zygier received? Moreover, while the Israeli government will never comment on the cases, there is evidence to suggest that it has had a hand in the deaths of a number of leading Iranian nuclear scientists, some killed in their cars as they travelled to work; a grisly, if nonetheless successful way of checking Iran's nuclear progress.

Did Zygier deliberately, or inadvertently, feed information about Mossad operations to Iran, or other hostile countries? Was he a fully fledged double-agent? Was he feeding information about Israeli operations back to officials in Australia – it certainly seems as though one official at the Australian embassy in Tel Aviv knew about Zygier's activities and he was known to Australia's secret service agents.

The answer to all these questions is that we don't know. Little information has leaked out and even those closest to Zygier seem unprepared to speak. What we do know is that whatever he did, it ultimately cost him his life.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
  • Get to the point
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity to...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Manager - Production

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Trainee Managers are required to join the UK's...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Manager

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will maximise the effective...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + uncapped commission : SThree: Hello! I know most ...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss