chief legal counsel for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
journalist, author, and co-founder of Independent Australian Jewish Voices.
An international scandal is growing after an Australian-Israeli man with ties to Israel’s spy agency, the Mossad, died inside a maximum security prison in Israel. For more than two years, the Israeli government imposed a strict gag order on his 2010 death, but now the secret is leaking out. Israel has called his death a suicide, but new information could emerge now that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation has revealed his name: Ben Zygier. We’re joined by Dan Yakir, chief legal counsel for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which has led the effort in Israel to uncover information about Prisoner X and has successfully challenged a gag order on its role. We also speak to Antony Loewenstein, an independent journalist, author and co-founder of Independent Australian Jewish Voices. [includes rush transcript]
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today’s show looking at a scandal gripping Israel and Australia centered on a man once known simply as "Prisoner X," who was found dead in a maximum security prison in Israel in 2010. Israeli officials said he committed suicide. A gag order was placed on the Israeli media, barring reporters from revealing any information about the prisoner. His identity remained unknown until last week, when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation ran an exposé about the case on their program Foreign Correspondent. The episode began like this.
TREVOR BORMANN: It was a peephole look into a top-secret world, but just enough to grip a nation’s attention and pose disturbing questions. What was the identity of a mysterious prisoner in one of Israel’s toughest jails? And why the secrecy behind his extraordinary incarceration?
UNIDENTIFIED: We shouldn’t be talking about this on the phone.
TREVOR BORMANN: When the media began to ask questions, the state mobilized to push through one of the harshest and most punitive suppression orders conceivable. The only piece of information to emerge since is that this man, housed in a purpose-built, high-tech, suicide-proof prison within a prison, somehow managed to kill himself. There are many inside and outside Israel who remain deeply concerned about the case of Prisoner X.
BILL VAN ESVELD: The old saying, sunlight is the best disinfectant. If there’s no sunlight, we don’t know what happened, and very dirty things could have gone on.
TREVOR BORMANN: Tonight, a special Foreign Correspondent investigation to unmask Prisoner X. It’s a story that cannot be told here in Israel, because the government has threatened to jail anyone who writes about it, anyone who talks about it. The courts have effectively shut down any discussion of this case, because, they argue, this is a case of national security. For the first time, we reveal compelling evidence that Israel’s infamous Prisoner X was a man from suburban Melbourne.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: The Australian Broadcasting Corporation went on to identify Prisoner X as Ben Zygier, an Australian-Israeli citizen who was allegedly a member of Mossad. While Israel has now lifted the gag order, much still remains unknown about the case. There were reports that Zygier was one of three Australians who changed their names several times and took out new Australian passports for travel in the Middle East and Europe for their work with Mossad. A Kuwaiti newspaper linked Zygier to the assassination of Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, who was drugged and suffocated in his hotel room in Dubai months before Prisoner X was arrested.
On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his first public comments about Prisoner X.
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: [translated] We are not like other countries. We are an exemplary democracy and regard the rights of defendants and individual rights no less than any other country. We are also more threatened, more challenged, and therefore we have to ensure the proper operation of our security branches. Therefore, I ask everyone to let the security services continue working quietly, so that we can continue to live in safety and tranquility in the state of Israel.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by two guests. Dan Yakir is chief legal counsel for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. His organization has led the effort in Israel to uncover information about Prisoner X. The Israeli Supreme Court has just today lifted a gag order on the group’s role in the case.
And we’re joined by Antony Loewenstein, who is joining us from Sydney, Australia, via Democracy Now! videostream, an independent journalist and author, co-founder of Independent Australian Jewish Voices.
Antony, let’s begin with you, if you could start off by just laying out what this case is all about, who this man was.
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: In short, this gentleman’s identity was not known, as you said, until last week. We knew a little bit about the case a few years ago when the Israeli press reported that a gentleman had committed suicide in Israeli prison. We knew nothing else. Fast-forward to last week, and the Foreign Correspondent program on local television broke the story, and it’s gone global since.
What essentially has come out in the last week has been a litany of information which really goes to the heart, I think, of what regularly happens between Australia and Israel. On the one hand, what happened to this gentleman, Ben Zygier, is unique. Not that many Israeli Australians die in Israeli prisons, either murdered or suicide. That’s true. But on the other hand, the facilitation by the Australian Jewish establishment and the Australian intelligence services of young Jews to Israel, to live there, to obviously serve in the IDF, and sometimes work for Mossad, is not that unusual. It doesn’t get talked about, the press doesn’t really examine it very often, but it’s not that unusual. And it goes to the heart, in some ways, of what the Jewish Zionist lobby here is about in Australia and indeed in many Western countries, including in your country, the U.S., which is to facilitate and blindly support Israeli security [inaudible]—
AMY GOODMAN: Antony, we’re going to—we’re going to cut off you for one minute, because Dan Yakir has just joined us. And this—because this Israeli Supreme Court decision has just come down, we don’t want to lose him, as he goes off to other interviews. Dan Yakir is the chief legal counsel for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. Dan, can you speak to us about what the Supreme Court has just decided and what information you are going to be releasing now?
DAN YAKIR: It’s only in regard to the proceedings we initiated two years ago. ACRI heard for the first time about Prisoner X in June 2010, six months before his death. And we addressed the attorney general, raising our concern about the prisoner being totally isolated and under complete secrecy. A few days after we heard about his death in mid-December, we filed a motion with the district court to lift the gag order, or at least limit its sweeping scope, to allow publication of some details about the charges brought against him, and especially the concern about how he was found dead in the most protected cell of the prison services. After the district court dismissed our motion, we filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court heard the appeal in February two years ago. But the judges also were—the judges—also the judges on the Supreme Court heard the security services for an hour and a half ex parte. And after that, they told us they were convinced that the whole—that the complete secrecy is justified.
AMY GOODMAN: Dan, if you could step back for a minute and go back and tell us how you learned about this case. You knew about this man, Ben Zygier, in jail before he died, before he, quote, "committed suicide." Talk about how you knew about it, what alarms you started to raise, and then what happened after you learned he had, quote, "committed suicide."
DAN YAKIR: In May 2010, there was a short-lived report on an Israeli news site, Ynet, regarding a Prisoner X held in Ayalon Prison in complete isolation, and even the prison guards don’t know his identity and are prohibited from talking to him. After a few hours, this report vanished, and it raised our concerns regarding the rights of the prisoner and the conditions that he is held, but also the complete secrecy around the affair. And we tried to gather some details about it but couldn’t. And that’s why we addressed the attorney general for the first time. Six months later, we got information from a—from a source connected to the media about him being found dead in his cell, and then we filed the motion with the courts.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dan Yakir, can you talk about what precedent there is, if any, for a gag order that was, we are to understand, exceptionally broad? Has there been a precedent for this before in Israel with any prisoner?
DAN YAKIR: There were a few cases in the last couple of years. In all those cases, ACRI either filed motions with the court or approached the attorney general, but they were much—for a much limited period of time, in the case of Anat Kamm, a soldier in the IDF who was charged and convicted of copying hundreds of classified documents, and other cases. In the past, there were a few exceptional cases where prisoners were held under false identity for years. And the most notable one is Dr. Marcus Klingberg, a biologist who was convicted of espionage on behalf of the U.S.S.R., and he was held during most of his years in prison under false identity, and his trial was under complete secrecy.
AMY GOODMAN: Dan, we want to come back to you. We want to play a brief clip of the ABC—that’s Australian Broadcasting Corporation—TV documentary that exposed the identity of Prisoner X. In this, a former Australian intelligence agent, Warren Reed, expresses skepticism about claims that Ben Zygier committed suicide.
WARREN REED: There are lots of ways nowadays where you can pick up the extent to which the person in the cell is sweating, their heartbeat, all sorts of things. I mean, modern technology applied in a cell like that almost totally precludes any possibility of someone like him, sanitized in that way, could hang themselves. I find it almost impossible to believe.
AMY GOODMAN: Warren Reed also indicated the nature of his imprisonment suggested that the case was very sensitive.
WARREN REED: The degree of sanitization of this gentleman, where he was put in Unit 15 in that prison, which was constructed only as one cell, and hermetically sealing him away, in all human terms, even within the prison, from his society, his family, that suggests that it has to be something very, very touchy and very immediate. Otherwise, you wouldn’t go to those lengths.
AMY GOODMAN: That is footage courtesy of ABC TV, Australia’s Foreign Correspondent program. If you could comment on this, Dan Yakir, and also on the allegations that this man, that Ben Zygier, was involved with the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, the Hamas official who was killed in Dubai in a hotel room that we all came to see on closed-circuit television?
DAN YAKIR: I have no information in regard of the charges that were brought against him.
AMY GOODMAN: Repeat that.
DAN YAKIR: I have no information in regard to the charges brought against him.
AMY GOODMAN: But in terms of what Warren Reed was saying, the Australian agent, to do with suicide?
DAN YAKIR: Yesterday, the Magistrates Court allowed to publish a part of the decision of the judge that investigated the circumstances of his death. And according to the finding of the judge, it was a suicide, because according to the tapes, the radio, direct cameras, no one entered the cell. And I accept that, though a little bit—another important finding of the investigative judge was that—that prison guards are—should be charged negligently causing his death, and we’re awaiting the decision of the attorney, the state attorney, in regard of charges that will be brought against senior officials of the prison services.
AMY GOODMAN: In a moment we’re going to go back to Antony Loewenstein, who’s in Australia, but the response, Dan Yakir, in Israel? How much support are you getting for exposing what has taken place, what you’re beginning to understand and what you’re revealing?
DAN YAKIR: I hope that this whole affair will be a watershed. I think most of the public, unfortunately, rely on the security services and saying that whatever they deem to be secret is—should be a secret. But I think the tragic result of this whole affair, I hope, will serve as a watershed of raising a positive suspicion against the security services, who have had a—either a conscious or unconscious interest to cover up mishappenings during their operation.
AMY GOODMAN: And how does this compare to treatment of Palestinian prisoners?
DAN YAKIR: Usually, Palestinian prisoners are not held under secret conditions or in isolation, but there was also the case of the engineer, Abu Sisi, from Gaza, who allegedly was kidnapped by the Mossad from a train in Kiev, and charges were brought against him of being involved in the rocket firing on Israel. And at first, the mere fact that he was arrested was under a gag order. After we filed a motion, this was lifted, but his whole trial was also conducted behind closed doors.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you for being with us, Dan Yakir, chief legal counsel for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, as we turn back to Antony Loewenstein, who is the independent journalist and author following the Prisoner X story. The response in Australia, Antony, as you listen to Dan Yakir speaking from Israel?
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Look, the response by the establishment Jewish community has essentially been virtual silence. When the story broke last week, they have—virtually every Jewish lobby group has said nothing, literally nothing, until yesterday. There was a statement released by the leading Jewish organization in Australia which had a very kind of benign statement saying that we are encouraged by the fact that Israel and Australia will undergo a investigation, which I suspect will be a bit of a whitewash.
The Australian government is embarrassed, because the details of this case remain murky. One of the things that hasn’t been mentioned is that during the Dubai hit on the Hamas operative in 2010, the Australian passports were used and forged for that mission, amongst other countries, as well. And the Australian government publicly at the time was pretty upset about this, as other governments were, as well. But in private, I’ve heard from a variety of sources, that in fact the reality was that this sort of thing is known to happen. Many governments do it, including our own government, my government, the Australian government.
So, officially, the Australian and the Israelis would like this issue to disappear. And one of the things that’s become very clear in Australia in the last week—and indeed this is reflected, I think, in the fact that the Australian Jewish establishment sees its role as endorsing and enforcing what Israel does, whether it’s backing the occupation or supporting a strike on Iran—all those things fit into this narrative, which is young Jews who go to young Jewish schools in Australia—Australia is one of the most pro-Israel countries in the world, along with South Africa and, of course, obviously, the U.S.—that it’s not that surprising this sort of thing has happened. The details are unique, but the facilitation of a gentleman like Ben Zygier to undergo these kind of actions by Mossad is not that unusual. It just doesn’t usually get talked about in the press.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what has been the significance of this case, you think, for Australia, as this news has come out?
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Well, I think one thing that it’s done—and this has been discussed in the wider press, in the wider media and indeed in many public forums in the last week—has been a lot of Australians are uncomfortable with the fact that an Australian citizen can go to Israel, become an Israeli citizen, join the IDF, undergo some kind of training and potentially work for Mossad and commit acts which, and in any definition, are breaches of international law, whether it’s the assassination of Hamas leaders in Dubai or involved in other strikes against Iranian nuclear scientists. So, many people feel uncomfortable about this.
And one of the things that we do see in Australia, and we see it in the U.S. and many countries, is when Israel, for example, starts a war, whether it’s against Lebanon or Gaza or elsewhere, you see a number of Australian Jewish dual nationals go to Israel to fight in the IDF with those—with the Israeli military. And that sort of thing, I think, makes a lot of Australians uncomfortable—rightly so, in my view. And I think there needs to be a real question here—this is one of the things that’s being talked about in circles, not so much publicly in the Australian Jewish community, but certainly privately and indeed in the wider press—that why does the Australian government feel comfortable facilitating young Jews to move to Israel, potentially commit acts of, arguably, in certain cases, terrorism, or at least breaches of international law, in Gaza or Lebanon or Dubai, wherever Ben Zygier may have been behind it.
AMY GOODMAN: But Antony, isn’t the Australian intelligence now investigating why it was that Ben Zygier came back to Australia and changed his name and his passport several different times?
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Possibly, Amy, yes. But one of the things that also is involved in this story is that the Australian intelligence services knew what Ben Zygier was doing. One of the things that remains unclear is exactly why the Israelis arrested Ben Zygier and put him in high-security prison. Was it because he was leaking information to the Australian intelligence services? Was he about to break some story to the press? Was there a crisis of conscience? We don’t know. These certainly are allegations that have been talked about here by a number of reliable sources, and indeed in Israel, as well. So, yes, the Australian intelligence services publicly are talking about an investigation, but just like in the U.S., they are incredibly opaque. There is not really any kind of legislative transparency in the way ASIO, which is the intelligence services here, operates. So, as much as we like to think that there would be some kind of investigation which is released publicly, the sad reality is that both Australia and Israel would like this situation to remain as it is today—in other words, very, very close relationship.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much, Antony Loewenstein, for joining us, independent journalist and author, co-founder of Independent Australian Jewish Voices, has been closely following the Prisoner X story from Sydney. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.