Sunday, March 10, 2013

The case of Prisoner X

Until recently, the identity and existence of ‘Prisoner X’ in Israel was considered a myth. After much pressure, the government partially lifted the ban on reporting details of the imprisonment of Prisoner X, a ban imposed by an Israeli court after his arrest. Prisoner X was widely reported to be 34-year-old Ben Zygier. Zygier, who held both Australian and Israeli citizenship, was depicted as an agent of Israel’s Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations, otherwise known as the Mossad; he was arrested in Israel in 2010 on unspecified acute charges. It has been said that the secrecy surrounding Zygier was so great that his prison guards were informed of neither his offence, nor his name.

In the 1990s, Zygier moved to Israel and was then recruited by the Mossad. The Mossad were eager to enlist individuals who held dual nationality, as it meant the individual could travel freely without needing to connect themselves to Israel. Zygier died in 2010, apparently hanging himself in the solitary confinement cell he occupied, which had originally been designed for Yigal Amir, assassin of the then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The Israeli government refuses to comment on Zygier, and only confirmed his identity well after his death. If the claims made by the Australian broadcaster ABC are correct, the Zygier case represents a serious breach for the Mossad as an agency. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, has since acknowledged the issue but stresses that Israel’s security needs demanded that some information be kept secret.

The secrecy surrounding this case has led to speculations that Zygier was denied a fair trial or representation suggesting that Israel has breached international law. Under Article 6 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the UN General Assembly, states that it is a fundamental right for an individual to have a fair trial. Nevertheless, Israel has ratified the declaration, by being a UN member state upon its creation in 1948. According to Avigdor Lieberman – Foreign Minister at the time - the prisoner’s rights were respected. 

The reports of Zygier’s treatment and his suicide in Ayalon Prison have caused problems for Australia. The country’s government has since been forced to admit that they were briefed over the case since his detention in February 2010. Previously, they had claimed to know nothing of Zygier's detention and death until his family asked for help to repatriate his body. Australia's Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, stated that Australia had been assured of Zygier's safety. It is also believed that Zygier was not the only agent who took advantage of the Australian law allowing individuals to change their name every 12 months and apply for a new passport each time. Zygier changed his name three times in total.

Michael Ross, a former Mossad agent, calls Zygier’s repatriation, induced identity changes and solitary confinement under its particular circumstances  ‘scandalous’. It does seem as though like Israel has crossed three key boundaries. Zygier, who worked for Mossad, was asked not to give up his Australian citizenship, creating a conflict of interest; he was sent to operate in Australia under his true identity. This jeopardised Israel’s relations with Australia, as well as all other nations for which it used foreign passports for, because any espionage committed will be recorded on the foreign passport.  Future Israeli action will inevitably draw greater external scrutiny.

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