UK & World News
Israel Admits 'Prisoner X' Secret Jailing
Israel has admitted for the first time that it secretly jailed an Australian - who apparently killed himself in his prison cell.
The man, who came to be known as "Prisoner X", is believed to have been Ben Zygier, 34, a national of both Israel and Australia who allegedly worked for Israel's intelligence agency Mossad.
Prisoner X had been arrested on serious, but unspecified charges, in 2010.
Israel's justice ministry broke its silence after an Australian Broadcasting Corporation report into the case sparked an outcry over media gagging orders.
"For security reasons the man was held under a false identity although his family was immediately informed of his arrest," a statement said.
The man was found dead in his cell and a judicial inquiry ruled he took his own life, the ministry added, although it did not reveal his identity or the charges against him.
"Following an extensive investigation it was ruled six weeks ago that it was suicide," said the ministry. "The prisoner was held in jail under a warrant issued by a court."
But other details of the case remained under a gagging order, leaving local media obliged to quote foreign reports.
Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr initially said he only became aware of the man's incarceration after his death, but has now admitted the government knew of his detention at the time.
He told a parliamentary committee the information had been gathered through Australian intelligence channels.
"They provided the name of the citizen, in relation to serious offences under Israeli national security legislation," he said, adding that Canberra had sought assurances that he was not being mistreated.
The story first emerged in June 2010 when Israel's Ynet news website briefly ran a report about a prisoner being held in top secret conditions whose identity and alleged crime were not even known to his jailers.
The story was quickly taken offline and a complete media blackout imposed, but it resurfaced on Tuesday through Australia's public broadcaster.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called an urgent meeting with top editors to ask them to withhold publication of information "pertaining to an incident that is very embarrassing to a certain government agency", the Haaretz newspaper said, in a clear allusion to Mossad.
Shortly afterwards, three MPs raised questions over the issue in parliament, effectively sidestepping the censor in a move that forced a slight easing of the reporting restrictions.
While Israel has not revealed the charges, The Australian newspaper suggested he had been detained for treason.
It cited Israeli Army Radio as saying: "Why was he interned? The suspicion is because of treason against Israel."
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Zygier was being investigated by Australia's overseas espionage agency ASIS, which suspected him of using his Australian passport to spy for Israel.
The Herald said he was one of at least three dual Australian-Israeli citizens who emigrated to Israel in the past decade whose cases were probed.
It said that in each case the men used the passports to travel to Iran, Syria and Lebanon - countries that do not allow Israelis to enter.
When the newspaper confronted Zygier in early 2010, he angrily denied he worked for Mossad.
"I have never been to any of those countries that you say I have been to," he said at the time.
"I am not involved in any kind of spying."
Tensions between Australia and Israel were high in 2010 following the alleged assassination of the senior Hamas figure Mahmoud al-Mabhouh by a Mossad team at a Dubai hotel.
The team was said to have used four forged Australian passports, and Canberra expelled the Israeli Mossad station chief over the affair.