The Australian and Israeli governments have found themselves squaring off—and answering embarrassing questions—over the death of an anonymous prison inmate who killed himself under very shady circumstances. Here's everything you need to know about the made-for-spy-novel drama as it unfolds.
The man in question, who became known as "Prisoner X," committed suicide while on tight lockdown in an Israeli prison cell in 2010. No one knew his identity or why he was there, because Israeli security services enforced an extremely strict gag order that prevented any media outlets from discussing the case publicly. A few news agencies did try report the story, but were forced to take down their finding even though didn't mention anything about who the person was or why he was in jail. Even the guards watching over Prisoner X did not know his identity or alleged crime.
Despite some rumblings in the international media, the Israelis refused for years to admit that Prisoner X even existed. Then last week, an Australian news program, Foreign Correspondent, broke the story wide open, revealing the identity of the prisoner, the fact that he was actually an Australian citizen, and something even more shocking—he was secretly working for the Israeli spy agency, Mossad.
The report was so detailed and so complete that Israel was forced to lift the gag order and admit that Prisoner X was Ben Zygier, a Jewish man from Melbourne, who married and Israeli woman and moved to her country in 2000. The report confirmed that Zygier was indeed held prisoner and did kill himself by hanging, but offered no other explanation about his case. The report did insist that Zygier was treated humanely, was offered legal counsel, and that his family knew he had been arrested.
But what the exposé wasn't able to explain is how a man confined to a special "suicide-proof" cell in Israel's most heavily guarded and closely monitored prison could kill himself without anyone stopping him. Zygier was never charged with a crime and his arrested was never made public until now.
Now that his identity is known, however, the media has begun pieceing together more clues about Zygier's life in Israel and how much Australian authorities knew about it. They had actually been on to Zygier before he was arrested back in 2010, believing he might be spying for Israel. It was understood that Mossad was recruiting Australian Jews to come and work for them, because their Anglicized names and real Australian passports allowed them to travel freely to Arab countries, like Iran and the United Arab Emirates. (Zygier had returned to Israel to change his name to Ben Allen, and was issued a new passport.)
In early 2010, around the time Zygier was first detained, Mossad agents assassinated a top Palestinian arms dealer in Dubai. The operation became a major embarrassment for the spies when it was discovered that the entire thing was caught on closed-circuit cameras and the agents involved had used passports and identities that were stolen from actual, living dual citizens. A Kuwaiti newspaper even claimed on Thursday that Zygier was arrested because he ratted out the Mossad assassins to authorities in Dubai. An Australian website claims he was about to sell them out to his old country instead, and was arrested before he could get the chance. Neither report has been independently confirmed.
It's bad enough that Israel would let foreign citizens spy on their behalf using other nation's passports—a big no-no in the diplomatic world—but the scandal doesn't stop there. The Australian government denied knowing anything about one of their citizens rotting in an Israeli jail, but after the Foreign Correspondent story broke, the Foreign Minister Bob Carr was forced to backtrack and now says that some officials were aware of the arrest. However, his homeland offered no legal assistance and no members of the Australian embassy went to visit him in jail.
This modern espionage story has captivated the two nations (and the rest of the world), but this week's revelations raise even more questions than they answer. If Zygier was working for Israel, why would they arrest him? Why was the government so desperate to keep his case a secret? Was the gag order really about protecting national security, or was it meant to cover-up an even bigger crime? Did Australia's intelligence agencies know who he worked for ... or was he maybe working for them?)
The biggest question of all is was it really suicide? Was he driven to kill himself? Was he tortured? Abused? Murdered? Given all the lies that have been uncovered so far, it will be hard to believe any of the "official" explanations, but this story won't be swept under the rug any longer.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.