More On The Life, Death Of Prisoner X

Mystery continues to surround the life and death of Prisoner X, who was held in an Israeli jail for unknown reasons and found dead in his cell in 2010, in what Israeli officials have called a suicide. For more, Robert Siegel speaks with NPR's Larry Abramson.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. And we're going to hear now about Prisoner X, a man who was held in Israel under a false name and who committed suicide in 2010. Israel continues to cite its secrecy laws to justify withholding most details about the case, but thanks to media in other countries, we now know that Prisoner X was an Australian-Israeli.

He had dual citizenship, and he worked for Israel's foreign intelligence agency, the Mossad. For more, we're joined by NPR's Larry Abramson in Jerusalem. And, Larry, we now know this man's name. Who was he?

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: He was Ben Zygier, Robert, an Australian Jew, migrated to Israel around the age of 18. He joined the army and then the Mossad. And now, we don't really know what he was doing for the Mossad, of course, because that's all secret. But when he was 34, in 2010, he was arrested, and we don't know exactly why. He was held in Israel's famous Ayalon prison and apparently faced some serious charges.

He was held under a false name, which is not unheard of in Israel, but it's rare. And apparently, that was with his own consent, partly to protect his own family. He was in a specially designed cell meant to protect against suicide, but he managed to hang himself somehow in 2010. A handful of people knew that this was going on in Israel, but thanks to a judicial gag order, most Israelis knew nothing about this until this past week.

SIEGEL: And the news broke out, actually, because of an Australian TV piece, didn't it?

ABRAMSON: You're right. So the ABC did an investigation and aired a report, and members of Israel's parliament learned about it and they decided that they could talk about it because they have parliamentary immunity while everybody else in the country can't. And once they did that, the media here was suddenly free to talk about the case that had been under a gag order for years.

The government acknowledged that a foreign national had been held under an assumed name, but they still haven't named this man. They still haven't acknowledged that it was Ben Zygier. We just know this from these other media reports. And that's the way that things work here, Robert, is that once foreign media lifts the veil, then local media can talk about it.

SIEGEL: And we don't know why he was arrested, Mr. Zygier?

ABRAMSON: Now, this is where it gets very murky. Zygier was one of three Australian emigres who were apparently going back and forth from Australia, changing their names and getting new passports. Zygier apparently changed his name three times. Now, these men may have been using these passports to go to places that Israelis can't normally go to, like Syria and Iran for their Mossad work.

The Australian Security Service was starting to get wise to this, thanks, in part, to an assassination of a Hamas official in Dubai in 2010, just before Zygier's arrest, in which Mossad was apparently using these Australian passports. But it doesn't explain why Zygier was arrested, unless he was perhaps talking about these passports with Australian intelligence officials. That's one piece of speculation.

But a lawyer spoke with him just before he died, said that Zygier knew that he might be facing a really long prison sentence.

SIEGEL: But the point is he was incarcerated. His incarceration was secret. Nobody could talk about it. Now that's all been disclosed. What's been the reaction to all this in Israel?

ABRAMSON: Well, you know, Israelis are used to a lot of secrecy here, but I think even they are sometimes surprised at some of the goings on and the fact that somebody was held, you know, all these years ago, committed suicide, and nobody knew about it. There has been outrage about the idea that in a democracy like Israel you can still have secret arrests and a secret trial, but it does turn out that Zygier did have access to attorneys.

It's just that nobody else had any view of the trial that was going on. I think the real lasting outrage that's going on is about the press censorship system that's going on here, and that may be the thing that comes out of this is that people may say, in this day and age, in the Internet era, we really cannot have military press censorship, which is essentially what this is.

SIEGEL: NPR's Larry Abramson speaking to us from Jerusalem. Thank you, Larry.

ABRAMSON: Thank you, Robert.

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