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Australia: 'Prisoner X' worked for Israeli government

William West / AFP - Getty Images, file

Australian newspapers lead their front pages on Feb. 14 with the story of Ben Zygier, known as "Prisoner X".

The murky world of state-sponsored espionage has come under the spotlight in an Australian government report about the death of a man known as "Prisoner X" in a maximum-security Israeli prison.

Ben Zygier, who had dual Australian and Israeli citizenship, was arrested in January 2010 and was found hanged in his cell in an apparent suicide in December 2010.

His identity and reasons for confinement were unknown until he was named last month following an investigation by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

A report released Tuesday by Australian Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, shed some light on the case.

Australian media have said Zygier was imprisoned because Israel suspected he had disclosed secret details of Mossad operations.

The report confirmed Zygier was an employee of the Israeli government at the time of his arrest.

Carr stopped short of identifying Zygier as a Mossad agent, but told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Tuesday that "open-source material" suggested Zygier "worked for the intelligence arm of the Israeli government."

"You can draw your own conclusions," he added.

'Significant uncertainty'
Israel's government has refused to release details about the Zygier case, even after a gag order that barred Israeli media from reporting on it was partially lifted. 

The Australian report said that Zygier, who had lived in Israel for about ten years before his death, had been arrested by Israeli authorities on charges of national security.

The charges he faced carried penalties of up to 20 years in jail, but not the death penalty, it added.

"Significant uncertainty exists around the details of Israel’s handling of the arrest, detention and legal processes of Mr. Zygier," the report said.

But the government would await the outcome of "various inquiries underway or foreshadowed in Israel" before seeking further information, it said. Zygier had three Australian passports, all legally obtained, issued in his birth name and two other names following official name changes. He held only one passport at any one time.

Andrew Brownbill / AP, file

The grave of Ben Zygier, who died in an apparent suicide in 2010 in a maximum-security Israeli prison, at Chevra Kadisha Jewish Cemetery in Melbourne, Australia.

However, the report identified "the broader issue of the misuse of Australian passports by Israeli intelligence" as a concern of national security at the time of Zygier’s incarceration.

Although there was no suggestion that Zygier was involved in this misuse — or that he obtained his passports fraudulently — the government report said, "If media reports prove to be true that Mr. Zygier used his passport in the service of Israeli intelligence, this would raise significant questions about the appropriateness of this activity."

The issue of misused passports is particularly sensitive for Australia.

In 2010, an Australian investigation concluded that Israel had counterfeited four Australian passports used by the suspected hit squad that murdered a Hamas official in Dubai.

Australia retaliated by expelling an Israeli diplomat. Carr said there was no evidence Zygier was involved in the Dubai killing.


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