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Controversy erupts on two continents over Israel's 'Prisoner X'

Julian Smith / Australian Associated Press via EPA

Is this the last resting place of "Prisoner X"? The tombstone of Ben Zygier at the Chevra Kadisha Jewish Cemetery in Melbourne, Australia. EDITOR'S NOTE: This image was manipulated by the Australian Associated Press to obscure the names of children on the tombstone for privacy reasons.

A storm of controversy erupted on two continents Wednesday after a television station claimed to have identified the inmate of a high-security Israeli jail previously known only as "Prisoner X."

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported Tuesday that the inmate was Ben Zygier, 34, also known as Ben Alon and Ben Allen. It described him as a married father of two who was originally from Australia but who later moved to Israel.

It said he was found hanged in his cell --  originally built for Yigal Amir, who assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin -- in 2010, and that he had been buried in Melbourne, Australia, a few weeks later. 

The report said Zygier had been recruited by Israeli spy agency Mossad, but it did not cite a source for this information. NBC News was unable to independently verify the report.

In 2010, the prisoner’s case was highlighted by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which wrote to the country’s attorney-general saying it was “alarming” that someone was being detained “incommunicado and we know nothing about him,” the broadcaster reported.

But the attorney-general’s assistant replied that a “gag order” imposed by the Israeli government preventing media reports about the case was “vital for preventing a serious breach of the state’s security, so we cannot elaborate about this affair,” it added.

The case of the prisoner, also known as "Mr. X," first came to public attention when a story appeared briefly on the Ynet news website in 2010, according to the U.K.'s Telegraph newspaper. "He is simply a person without a name and without an identity who has been placed in total and utter isolation from the outside world," a prison official reportedly said.

The Ynet report was taken down after a few hours, the Telegraph said.

'Very embarrassing'
Within hours of Tuesday's report surfacing, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office summoned editors to ask them not to publish a story "that is very embarrassing to a certain government agency," Israel's Haaretz newspaper said.

"The emergency meeting was called following a broadcast outside Israel regarding the incident in question," Haaretz added, giving no further information.

Shortly afterwards, all reference to the Australian report vanished from Israeli news websites, Reuters reported.

However, Israeli politicians then began asking about the case in the Knesset, the country's parliament, prompting media reports about the case.

“Are there people in prisons whose incarceration is kept secret? What are the supervision mechanisms on this kind of imprisonment?” lawmaker Dov Henin asked Tuesday, according to The Jerusalem Post. “What are the possibilities for parliamentary supervision on such incarcerations?”

Another lawmaker, Zehava Gal-On, expressed concern about the involvement of the media in keeping quiet about Prisoner X, the Post reported. “Today, we hear that in a country that claims to be a civilized democracy, journalists cooperate with the government, and that anonymous prisoners, who no one knew existed, commit suicide,” she said.

Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman told the Knesset that more details about the case would eventually be made known, the Post reported.

Trained as lawyer
The case is also raising questions in Australia.

In an emailed statement Wednesday, a spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said that “an internal review of the department’s handling of this consular case” had begun.

In a follow-up to its original story, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation quoted a spokeswoman for Australia's Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr as saying that “some officers of the department were made aware of Mr. Allen's detention at the time in 2010 by another Australian agency.”

Writing in The Australian Financial Review, Patrick Durkin said he had trained as a lawyer with Zygier in 2001.

“I remember drinking with Ben one night in 2001 when he recounted his famous story of taking a bullet in the posterior during his military service in Israel, which he served shortly before joining our group,” Durkin wrote. “He described in vivid detail patrolling the front line and backtracking across war-torn countryside while gunfire peppered the ground.”

“He was proud of his time in the military, despite our endless teasing about the wound we never asked to see,” he added.

Durkin also said he remembered “passionately debating the finer points of the Israel-Palestine conflict with Ben, who was obviously deeply engaged with the issue.”

On Wednesday, the Australian broadcaster quoted his uncle Willy Zygier as saying he had “no idea what is true, what isn't true.”

“All I know is there’s a family tragedy.  Every suicide is a tragedy. That’s all I’ve got to say,” he said. “Ben’s parents are in mourning. I don’t know if they’ll talk. And I’m a humble musician. I don’t know anything.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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