By Rod McGuirk
Australian legislators demanded answers Wednesday about the suspicious death of an Australian-Israeli man in an Israeli prison and the government ordered a review of the case, while little more information about the death was revealed in Israel.
The review followed an Australian Broadcasting Corp. report on Tuesday that sought to lift the veil of secrecy from a case that Israel has long kept under wraps and revealed that the man, identified as Ben Zygier, was suspected of links to Israel's Mossad espionage agency.
Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said a review would be conducted of his department's handling of the prisoner, who was found hanged in an Israeli prison cell in 2010. He is named Ben Allen in his Australian passport. He was also known as Ben Alon and was born Ben Zygier, and it is not certain that the passport name is genuine. A spokesman for Carr said the review was not meant "to suggest anything untoward has happened, but given that there's an interest in the case, let's have the review."
Carr also revealed that some Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials knew in 2010 that Allen was detained, contradicting an earlier statement that the department only became aware after he died.
Among the lawmakers demanding clarifications was shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, who told ABC she wanted to know why details about the case were being censored in Israel.
"That's a matter that I'll raise directly with the Israeli Embassy to get an understanding of the basis for it," she said. Israeli media reports said she met the ambassador and explained her concerns.
The leader of the Australian Greens, Christine Milne, said Carr should press Israel about the circumstances of the case.
The affair emerged in June 2010, when the Israeli news site Ynet briefly reported on the existence of a prisoner - identified only as Prisoner X - whose crimes were unknown, but that report was removed from the site shortly after it was posted.
Ynet then reported on Dec. 27, 2010, that a prisoner had committed suicide while in solitary confinement two weeks earlier. That report, which said jailers took him down from his noose and unsuccessfully tried to revive him, was also quickly removed.
Israel's military censor has the authority to block or even delete reports deemed threatening to national security. The censor's office declined comment.
The ABC reported that the prisoner, whom it referred to as Ben Zygier, migrated from Australia to Israel in 2000 and had worked for Mossad. It reported that his incarceration was top secret, but did not say why he had been arrested.
It said he hanged himself in a cell that had been specially designed for Yigal Amir, the Jewish ultranationalist who assassinated then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
Australia's foreign affairs department would not comment on what it described as the ABC's "speculation" on Allen's links to Mossad. It said it cannot comment on intelligence matters, "alleged or actual."
Carr said the concept of Australians working for Mossad was troubling, but that the Zygier family would need to contact him before he would take the matter further with Israel.
Zygier's family has declined to comment. In an interview with ABC local radio in Melbourne, Willy Zygier, Ben Zygier's uncle, said he had watched the broadcast but knew little else.
"I have no idea what is true, what isn't true. All I know is there is a family tragedy. Every suicide is a tragedy," said Zygier, a musician who was on the radio promoting an album.
In Israel, media were prevented from reporting details of the case because of a court-imposed gag order. A debate raged in the media and in Israel's parliament over the censorship of the case, which left media silenced and unable even to report about the ABC investigation. On Tuesday, the wall of silence drew angry reactions in parliament, where opposition lawmakers urged the government to come clean, in turn drawing a harsh response from some of their colleagues.
Avigdor Lieberman, a top political ally of Netanyahu and a former foreign minister, chided the members of parliament who demanded answers about the case, calling it "an attempt to harm state security." He told Israel's Army Radio "these people time and again try to harm, to justify the enemy."
Miri Regev, a lawmaker from the governing Likud party, accused the legislators of bypassing the military censor, saying "members of parliament are not above the law, just as journalists are not above the law."
The gag order was lifted Wednesday but few new details emerged beyond what ABC reported and the circumstances surrounding the death remain unclear.
According to the ABC report, the Australian migrated to Israel in 2000, was 34, married to an Israeli woman and the father of two young children.
A death notice published online from December 2010 announced the funeral for Ben Zygier. He is listed as the son of Geoffrey Zygier, the executive director of the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation Commission, an Australian Jewish organization based in the southern city of Melbourne that combats anti-Semitism. He declined to comment when contacted Wednesday.
A wedding photo shown on the Australian TV report, labeled with the Zygier family name, pictures a bald man next to a bride. A close up of the man is posted on the ABC website and identified as the prisoner.
The last previously known case of Israeli authorities seeking to suppress knowledge of a detainee was of Arab engineer Dirar Abu Sisi, who vanished after boarding a train in Ukraine on Feb. 19, 2011, only to resurface in Israel three weeks later in detention.
In that case, an Israeli court issued a gag order on his detention.
Abu Sisi was ultimately accused of masterminding Hamas' rocket program and training fighters in the Gaza Strip Gaza. He is charged with attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder and weapons production.