The grave of Ben Zygier, Israel's "Prisoner X."
On Tuesday morning, the Australian news network ABC broadcast a story revealing the identity of the mysterious “Prisoner X,” who died in solitary confinement in an Israeli prison in 2010. In fact, “Prisoner X” was the subject of a case so secret that ABC claimed even the guards inside the Ayalon prison didn’t know his identity, and that he “lived hermetically sealed from the outside world.” His arrest and detention have been described as a “disappearance,” setting alarm bells ringing for bodies such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, who argued that the idea of individuals simply vanishing from society is not a characteristic of a democratic state.
If the case already sounded like a bizarre 21st century combination of a Cold War spy thriller and The Man in the Iron Mask, things only got murkier when it was revealed that Prisoner X was found hanged in a cell that was under 24-hour surveillance, yet his incarceration was not officially recognized by either the Israeli Prison Service or the government. The Sydney Morning Herald also revealed on Wednesday that he was being watched by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), and that he had traveled to Iran, Syria, and Lebanon—all places that bar entry to people who've visited “the Zionist entity.” Israel forbids its citizens from traveling to these places for “security reasons,” so it was reported that Zygier, along with at least two others, had used their Australian passports. It’s been suggested often before that Australians are favored for spy missions because they don’t attract suspicion.
One thing ABC was clear about from the start was his identity—he was an Australian national named Ben Zygier, who had moved to Israel ten years before his death and changed his name to Ben Alon, before marrying an Israeli woman with whom he had two children. It seems likely that Zygier spent time working as a spy for the Mossad, the infamous Israeli secret service agency, before being jailed without an open trial and dying in his cell. ABC stated that his body was flown to Melbourne in December 2010 for burial, but the Australian government wasn’t informed of his death. This constitutes a violation of fairly basic international law, something that Israel is admittedly no stranger to.
Ayalon prison, where Zygier was detained.
This is where it all started to become a problem for the Israeli government. Israeli media outlets usually manage to bypass the military censor for high-profile stories by quoting foreign media sources and, initially, the local Israeli press jumped on ABC's revelation. However, it seems that the Prisoner X case is shrouded in even more secrecy than the strikes Israel recently carried out in Syria and the country's incursion into Lebanese airspace. Ha’aretz later reported that:
“The Prime Minister's Office called on Tuesday an emergency meeting of the Israeli Editors Committee, an informal forum comprised of the editors and owners of major Israeli media outlets, to ask its members to cooperate with the government and withhold publication of information pertaining to an incident that is very embarrassing to a certain government agency.”
There was also the small matter of the original gagging order put in place by Shin Bet, Israel's domestic secret service. When the Israeli site Ynet was ordered to pull its coverage of the story, it provided international media with a second angle to focus on—the censorship of the Prisoner X story, as well as the case itself. The gagging order was lifted at 7 AM local time Wednesday morning, unsurprisingly resulting in a flood of reports on everything from his investigation by ASIO to pictures of his grave in Australia. There came a fresh flood of reports about Zygier and his family, as well as the admission from Australian foreign minister Bob Carr that, in contradiction to his earlier statements, the authorities were told of Zygier's arrest in 2010.
A story on Ben Zygier in the Australian newspaper The Age.
The mysterious case of Prisoner X has so far raised more questions than answers: What could he have possibly done to end up being held in such conditions? Why didn't the Israeli authorities want anyone to know he was there? Was it, as many are speculating, to do with something that happened during his time with the Mossad? How was he able to hang himself in a room with permanent CCTV coverage? What made him want to hang himself?
Initially, it seemed like some answers might start to emerge on Wednesday morning when the Israeli government eventually cracked and sent out a judicial press release which admitted that a citizen of dual nationality had been imprisoned in secret. The justification given for his incarceration was predictably vague: it had been done “for security reasons,” and then Zygier's attorney Avigdor Feldman stepped forward and muddied the waters further.
Speaking to Israel's Channel 10, Feldman said that when he met with Zygier the day before his death, he found him to be "a balanced person… rationally weighing his legal options." Zygier and Feldman discussed the possibility of negotiating a plea bargain, something Zygier seemed enthusiastic about.
Although this would seem to suggest that Zygier wasn't radiating suicidal desperation at the time of their meeting, Feldman did also concede that: "His interrogators told him he could expect lengthy jail time and [to] be ostracized from his family and the Jewish community. There was no heartstring they did not pull, and I suppose that ultimately brought about the tragic end."
The detention center in the Negev desert, which will become the world's largest when its construction is completed.
This intense focus on Prisoner X isn’t just about his potential links to the Mossad—it’s because he was from a country with enough international clout, as well as the time and inclination, to complain when one of its citizens is mysteriously detained or suddenly arrives home in a body bag. Israel has recently executed a wave of deportations, and a portion of the 60,000 African migrants they've targeted come from countries such as South Sudan, whose government—though presumably preoccupied with other, arguably more pressing matters—does at least have a diplomatic relationship with Israel.
The situation is even worse if you're an immigrant from Eritrea living in Israel. The Eritreans have been made to choose between “voluntary” deportation back to a country with one of the world’s worst human rights records and being held indefinitely in a complex in the Negev that is set to become the world’s largest detention center, holding up to 11,000 people. It could be argued that these people are being put in prison for the crime of being the wrong kind of immigrant in a country that is built on immigration. It seems a strange thing to punish a person for, but the Israeli authorities don't seem too concerned with the notion of prison being a place for rehabilitation, either—there's no end goal to reintroduce these people back into Israeli society, it's literally just a gigantic holding cell in the desert.
Then, of course, there is the Palestinian contingent of Israel's prison system. According to Addameer, of the 4,743 currently holed up inside one of Israel's many oubliettes, 193 are children, 23 of whom are under the age of 16. One Palestinian prisoner, Samer al-Issawi, has recently seen the sun set on his 200th day of a partial hunger strike. A further 177 of those Palestinians are being held under "administrative detention orders," which allows the Israeli authorities to arrest people without charging them or setting a provisional date for trial. As with the Prisoner X case, the reasons given behind these administrative detention order arrests always pertain to "security," an ambiguous word that is often used to cover up myriad motivations and explanations that authorities are reluctant to release into the public domain.
Things don't seem like they're going to change any time soon. On the 7th of February, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected a petition filed by a group of NGOs to annul the clause in the law that allows security services such as the Shin Bet to use interrogation practices that violate human rights. It was rejected on the grounds that an alternative solution is being considered, although it’s pretty difficult to think of an alternative method of not committing human rights violations other than simply not doing it.
Reports on Samer al-Issawi suggest that he is close to death, something that is clearly bad press for Israel and its prison system. And yet—just as in the Prisoner X case—it remains to be seen whether this will aid the world's understanding of what exactly the Israelis plan to do with their prisoners. Why are people being thrown into a prison system that is designed to swallow them and ask questions later? Much, much later? So much later that they're dead?
Prisoner X may have had his identity hidden from public knowledge for several years, but at least when it was revealed, it was taken to mean something. But however his death came, and whatever motivation the Israelis had for locking him up in the first place, really the story of Ben Zygier is just one in a much larger story about the shadowy nature of the Israeli prison system and those who would seek to disappear the uncharged, the untried, and the unrepresented into those shadows.
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