TEL AVIV, Israel — In the space of three days, a two-year-old mystery about an unidentified prisoner who hanged himself in a high-security Israeli prison has become a scandal for Israel’s vaunted Mossad spy agency. Many here are predicting that it will cost some top officials their jobs.
The Israeli government now acknowledges that Prisoner X was an Australian citizen named Ben Zygier who was held in solitary confinement for eight months in this country’s notorious Ayalon prison before he hanged himself. But the details of Zygier’s life as a Mossad agent are still emerging, and with each new fact, analysts find a pattern of a spy agency that let down its guard and then perhaps went to extremes to cover up its responsibility.
"This is not an affair, it’s a catastrophe," Uri Misgav wrote in the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz. "The real issue is the state’s spiriting away an Israeli-Australian citizen, who worked for it, and locking him up hermetically until he died in strange, suspicious circumstances."
Some wonder how a man whom friends described as a braggart who liked to show off that he was in the Mossad not only joined the spy agency but also likely turned into a double agent.
For two years, the Israeli government used its censorship authority to keep the story out of the headlines, banning mention of the suicide at Ayalon of an unidentified prisoner. The case was considered so sensitive that even mentioning the publication ban was prohibited.
But the details of Zygier’s life have poured out since the government partially lifted the gag order in response to an Australian television investigation into the case.
Numerous friends and soldiers who served with him in the Israeli army have confirmed that Zygier, whose parents were prominent in Jewish causes in Australia, joined the Mossad and was proud of his work as a spy.
"He liked to talk about it. Sometimes it was hard to take him seriously, because you thought, ‘Why would a spy admit to being a spy?’ But yeah, he was really proud," said Adam, who served with Zygier as a combat soldier and asked not to be further identified out of fear of breaking Israel’s censorship law. "Over the years he would come and go, so part of me thought, ‘Well, maybe he is a spy.’ But that’s always a joke with somebody who travels a lot in Israel."
Records show that Zygier took advantage of an Australian law that allows citizens to change their names once a year. He took out at least three additional passports, using the names Ben Alon, Ben Allen and Benjamin Burrows. Zygier used those passports to travel to Iran and Syria, among other countries, and he applied for a work visa for Italy, according to public records in Australia.
Israeli officials have confirmed that that "job" for the Mossad was probably to set up a straw company in Italy that sold electrical equipment to Iran. In those shipments, intelligence officials add, he could have sent other equipment necessary for Mossad operations in Iran.
"Let’s say that you wanted to plant a bomb on a car. How would you get the explosive material into the country? Or let’s say you wanted to bug something. What better way than to send in appliances that already carried the bug?" one Western intelligence official told McClatchy, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "Iran depends on these companies, because it is the only way it can do business around the sanctions, and that makes it vulnerable."
Zygier, with his blond hair, blue eyes and Australian passport, wouldn’t have raised a lot of suspicion.
In late 2009, it appeared that Zygier was on the verge of disclosing secrets about Israel’s use of dual nationals in its spy operations.
He “may well have been about to blow the whistle, but he never got the chance," Fairfax Media reported, quoting what it described as an Australian security official with knowledge of the case. Fairfax publishes Australia’s two largest newspapers, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age..
After a visit to Australia, Zygier was arrested in Israel in February 2010. Australian newspapers have reported that Israel informed Australia’s secret service of the arrest on Feb. 24, 2010, eight days after Dubai police revealed that Mossad agents had used foreign passports – including Australian and British – to enter Dubai and assassinate a leading official of the Hamas movement, Mahmoud al Mabhouh.
One Israeli official familiar with the case, who spoke to McClatchy on the condition that he not be identified because of the gag order, confirmed that Zygier had intended to reveal sensitive details about the Mossad’s use of foreign passports that would have harmed Israel’s diplomatic relations with Western countries.
"Its unclear how far he went and therefore what the crimes were that he is being accused of committing," he said.
The official version of Zygier’s death – that he hanged himself in his cell on Dec. 15, 2010 – is being greeted with widespread skepticism as details about his life become known.
At the time that he allegedly killed himself, three district judges appointed to try his case were deliberating on a verdict. Several prominent lawyers were defending Zygier, and Avigdor Feldman, a prominent attorney who’d previously represented Mordechai Vanunu – who was accused of leaking secret information about Israel’s nuclear program – said Zygier was aware of his rights and determined to fight the charges leveled against him.
"He wanted to clear his name," said Feldman, who’d presented Zygier with a possible plea-bargain deal. “He was very rational and focused. He did not seem suicidal."
Feldman wouldn’t reveal the terms of the plea bargain, but he said Zygier had felt that it burdened him with crimes he didn’t commit.
Israeli human rights groups have begun pressing the government for details on Zygier’s death. They note that numerous reports show that he wasn’t suicidal. They also express wonder that he managed to kill himself in Israel’s highest-security prison, where he was under constant surveillance.
He died six days after his 34th birthday, and only four days after the birth of his second daughter. The cell he was confined in was outfitted with specialized cameras and sensors that could monitor his heartbeat and temperature, specifically designed to prevent a prisoner from harming himself.
Some Israeli newspapers have reported that Ayalon prison took hours to call medics once officials learned Zygier had attempted suicide and that prison medics didn’t try to resuscitate him. Australian papers have suggested a perhaps more nefarious ending, asking whether the suicide wasn’t a cover-up for a more gruesome death.
Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @sheeraf