Prisoner X - The Australian Connection Mossad agent - Silenced in Israel, Spy Tale Unfolds in Australia

In early 2010 a man was escorted to arguably the most secure prison cell in Israel.


"The elusive X is being held for unspecified crimes and confined in total seclusion within a private wing of the maximum security prison." REPORT, JUNE 2010 'TELEGRAPH' UK

In early 2010 a man was escorted to arguably the most secure prison cell in Israel. The guards taking him there had no idea who he was or what he'd done. What they did know was that the cell had been purpose designed and built for one previous occupant - the assassin of former PM Yitzhak Rabin.

"It is simply a person without a name and without an identity who is placed in complete and absolute isolation from the outside world. We don't know if he gets visits, or if anyone even knows he's even in jail. There is confidentiality surrounding the detainee in every respect." PRISON SERVICE OFFICER

When word leaked about the mysterious inmate, Israeli media began to report and speculate but no sooner had a handful of stories been published, the coverage was shut down by one of the most comprehensive suppression orders conceivable.

There would be one more blip of information that would sneak out. Prisoner X - held in a video-monitored, regularly checked, suicide proof cell - had killed himself.

Who was Prisoner X and what had he done to end up secretly jailed in a high-tech cell and locked down under a nationwide media ban?

Now, for the first time, some answers.

In a protracted and painstaking investigation, Foreign Correspondent has amassed compelling evidence uncovering the identity of Prisoner X. It's a trail that leads all the way from Israel to Australia.

Foreign Correspondent reveals that the man who died in Ayalon prison in 2010 was an Australian. It's a story that will send shockwaves around the world.

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 he secrecy behind his extraordinary incarceration?
When the media began to ask questions, the State mobilised to push through one of 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 (Human Rights Watch): The old saying is sunlight is the best disinfectant. If there's no sunlight, we don't know what happened, and very dirty things could have gone on.

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.

[music and title]

BORMANN: Ayalon maximum security prison conceals many secrets, even from those who work behind its walls. In early-to-mid 2010 an inmate in his early thirties arrived here under great secrecy and security.


The guards were not to ask questions and other prisoners knew nothing of the newcomer. His incarceration might have remained a state secret if it hadn't been for an incredulous prison's department official who spoke to a journalist.

PRISON OFFICIAL: Look it is simply a person without a name and without an identity who is placed in complete and absolute isolation from the outside world. We don't know if he gets visits, or if anyone even knows he's in jail. There is a confidentiality surrounding the detainee in every respect, okay? I doubt if even the jailers in charge of him know who he is.
[End re-enactment]

BORMANN: Between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem is a city of prisons called Ramla. There are five jails here, the notorious Ayalon prison is the biggest.


BORMANN: Detached from the main part of Ayalon is wing 15, a jail within a jail but containing just a single cell. With an array of high tech features including CCTV, it was built to house the assassin of Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin. But for several months in 2010 the identity of its occupant was a state secret.

PRISON OFFICIAL: Look, there is too much confidentiality surrounding him okay. It is scary that in 2010 a man imprisoned in Israel without us even knowing about it, okay?
[End re-enactment]

BORMANN: The prison official's account was picked up by online news service Y-Net and Israel's internal security force, Shin Bet, acted quickly to shut down the coverage. The reporter who ran the story was interrogated. When approached by Foreign Correspondent, he said he didn't want to get into any more trouble.

But authorities didn't stop there. Shin Bet went to court and in a secret hearing, a judge banned any further public mention of the Prisoner X case.
I tried a few contacts in Israel, but no one it seemed wanted to go near the case. And when I asked Israel's Association for Civil Rights exactly what couldn't be discussed, their chief legal counsel replied to me with just three words, the whole affair.
Back in 2010, the association's Dan Yakir wrote to Israel's Attorney General about Prisoner X, and received a letter back, saying "the current gag order is vital for preventing a serious breach of the state's security, so we cannot elaborate about this affair."
Eventually I found someone from an international organisation who was prepared to talk. Bill van Esveld is from Human Rights Watch. Israel and the Palestinian territories are his patch.

BILL VAN ESVELD [Human Rights Watch]: There will always be a national security justification offered by a government for you know some sort of bad treatment. You can almost expect it. It's not an excuse. You can never disappear somebody that's just a very clear red line. You cannot create a secret facility, you cannot you know take somebody and put them on the dark side of the moon and not expect to be called to account for it.

BORMANN: But the intriguing mystery of Prisoner X would not go away, despite the heavy handedness of the security services. One American blogger had a theory of his own, that this secret inmate was an Iranian General by the name of Ali Reza Asghari. He claimed the General had been kidnapped by Israel's overseas spy service, the Mossad. That theory went nowhere.

BILL VAN ESVELD ([Human Rights Watch]: Clearly it was super-sensitive otherwise you know at least people in the detention facility would know about it. This is a centre of attention, this part of the world has a lot of eyes on it. It's very difficult to keep a secret that well in this day and age.

BORMANN: The mystery had now become a source of speculation in the international media.

BRITISH VOICE: [The Telegraph] The elusive X is being held for unspecified crimes and confined in total seclusion within a private wing of the maximum security prison.

AUSTRALIAN VOICE: [Sydney Morning Herald] Several websites have suggested that this may indicate that the man is being held on suspicion of espionage and is a serving agent of the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service.

BORMANN: The continued chatter drove Israel's security services back to the courts to reinforce the blanket suppression of the case. Foreign Correspondent has obtained details of a gag order issued in late June 2010 under the case name "Israel versus John Doe". In it, Judge Hila Gerstl, of the Petach Tikva District Court bans any public mention or hint of Prisoner X, Mr X, cell number 15 in Ayalon Prison, the conditions there, or anything about being held in that cell. As an indication of how sensitive the issue was, the Judge ruled that even mention of the existence of the order was prohibited.
But with little to go on the media coverage soon dried up and the man in solitary confinement could have no contact with the outside world. The world could have no contact with him.
I sought opinion from an Australian man who knows all about keeping state secrets. Warren Reed is a former spy, trained by Britain's MI6. He was a senior operative in the Middle East and South East Asia for Australia's overseas spy agency, ASIS.

WARREN REED [Former Asis agent]: The degree of sanitisation 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.


BORMANN: As the Israeli government had hoped, little more was heard about Prisoner X.
Then, in December 2010, the Y-NET news service that broke the original story carried a brief news flash.

FEMALE VOICE: An inmate held in solitary confinement at Ayalon Prison committed suicide by hanging in his cell two weeks ago. The warden team that noticed him took him down and tried to revive him, but in vain. He was taken to the prison clinic and was pronounced dead.

BORMANN: The web page was quickly pulled down by Israeli authorities. It was news they were desperately trying to suppress. Prisoner X had apparently killed himself in one of the most sophisticated, secure and reportedly suicide proof facilities in Israel.

BILL VAN ESVELD [Human Rights Watch]: Was there a history of mental illness, was there a history of physiological illness, was this a result of what had happened to him in prison, was he told he would never get out, was this a result of despair? I mean, it's all a matter of speculation now but that's why you need the facts to be uncovered. That's why you know the state should not be able to shroud things in secrecy because anything could have happened. The person could have been murdered in custody.

WARREN REED [Former ASIS agent]: How could anybody hang themselves in that way? 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 sanitised in that way could hang themselves. I find it almost impossible to believe.


BORMANN: Then, during an assignment in Israel last year, an intriguing development. A respected and trusted source with connections to Israel's security establishment told me something he couldn't hope to have revealed in the local media. Prisoner X, he said, was Australian. He told me that X was a Jewish man in his mid-thirties who'd been in Israel for about ten years.
He'd lived in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra'Anana with his Israeli wife and two children. This Australian, he claimed, had worked for spy agency, Mossad. I was given the name - Ben Alon.

This is his photograph, from a social media site. And this is him at his wedding in 2006, with a caption bearing another name - Ben Zygier. As our investigation unfolded, his different names would become significant.
So began what would become months of painstaking and often frustrating inquiry to verify my source's information. It's a trail that leads all the way from Tel Aviv to Melbourne.
But first, to comprehend how an Australian could fall into such a predicament, I wanted to understand what motivates Australian born Jews to make the pilgrimage to Israel.

NOMI BLUM [Medical student] : It's almost innate, this notion of of homeland and of affinity towards Israel. My first time in Israel . . .

BORMANN: Medical student Nomi Blum regards Israel as a second home. A Jewish youth leader in Melbourne, she's been travelling to Israel for ten years, dabbling in everything from volunteer work with the ambulance service, to programs with Palestinian children.

NOMI BLUM: And that's a young Palestinian boy who proposed to me in Hebron. His friend came up to me immediately afterwards and said if you're not going to marry him, why don't you marry me. It was an excellent opportunity to contribute to Israeli society as well as learn about what was going on there. For me it's because Israel is a central component of of being Jewish. I wouldn't consider necessarily myself a religious person but I very strongly identify as a as a cultural Jew and a huge part of Jewish history and Jewish culture has been centred on the notion of Judaism as a nationality as in addition to it being a a religion.

BORMANN: Australian Jews, like others from the diaspora, are entitled to automatic Israeli citizenship and often become dual citizens. With that comes an obligation to serve in the Israeli military.

NOMI BLUM: I think if if those people believe in the cause they are fighting for and if they identify as Israeli citizens over being an Australian citizen, then I'm not sure that it's a problem.

BORMANN: Israel's largest and most vibrant city, Tel Aviv, is a magnet for young Jewish men and women from around the world who come here by the thousands each year. There are many ways to serve Israel and Australians have found themselves in intelligence agencies operating here.

WARREN REED [Former ASIS agent]: Australians abroad are generally seen to be fairly innocent. It's a clean country, it has a good image like New Zealand. There aren't many countries like that so our nationality and anything connected with it can be very useful in intelligence work.

BORMANN: Still sharp are the memories of early 2010 when Australians found out how their identities could be abused abroad. It was the most audacious of cloak and dagger missions. The assassination of a Palestinian arms trader in Dubai three years ago, practically the full story played out on CCTV. But the greatest international outrage was that Mossad had used the identities of dual nationals living in Israel, including four Australians. The spy agency created new passports with photos of the hit squad members.

STEPHEN SMITH (Former Australian Foreign Minister): This is not the first occasion where there has been misuse of an Australian passport by Israeli agencies. This was sanctioned by the State of Israel and that's why we have responded in the way that we have and why in very many respects we're distressed by it.

BORMANN: It marked a frosty moment in relations between two countries that were friends, their intelligence agencies close as well.

STEPHEN SMITH: We can only put it behind us if Israel conducts itself genuinely as a friend.

BORMANN: Australia had expelled an Israeli diplomat. It was a mere spat.

In 2010 ASIO suspected that several Australian Jews were working for Mossad, after changing their names from European or Jewish names to Anglo names. Then with new Australian passports and Australian accents, they could travel freely in the Arab world and to places like Iran, to destinations where no Israeli could venture.

WARREN REED [Former ASIS agent]: In a multicultural society like Australia when people are constantly applying for new passports, it's a dead giveaway and foreign affairs people usually are right on top of that.

BORMANN: Twelve years ago Melbourne man, Ben Zygier, moved to Israel to start a new life and would change his name to Ben Alon.

He would list his occupation as lawyer but according to my principal contact he worked for Mossad.

My source told me something went dreadfully wrong in this man's spy career and early to mid-2010, Ben Zygier found himself in solitary confinement in Ayalon prison.

BILL VAN ESVELD (Human Rights Watch]: For a Jewish person to be treated this way is is really quite unusual. We can look at the apparent concern from the security services but we can't say whether it was justified or not because we don't know what happened - that's exactly the problem.

WARREN REED [Former ASIS agent]: Well however the transgression came about, it would have to be involved with espionage, possibly treachery, but very very sensitive information that known to others would pose an immediate threat to Israel as a nation state. But of course with a case of this sensitivity, we really have to expect we'll probably never really know.

BORMANN: We've been unable to independently verify when Ben Zygier was jailed in 2010. But the timing of the reporting of Prisoner X's suicide offers key correlation to what we do know. Of two prison suicides in December, only one was at Ayalon. The Y- Net story on 27th December referred to the Ayalon hanging as occurring two weeks ago and that accords with records we've seen of Ben Zygier-Alon's death.

We understand a post mortem was conducted at the Health Department's Abu Kabir mortuary near Tel Aviv. Foreign Correspondent has evidence that a death certificate issued there for Ben Alon, the name Ben Zygier used in Israel, is dated December 15, so in keeping with Y-Net's time frame. It states the death occurred at Ramla, the suburb of Ayalon prison, and the cause of death was asphyxiation by hanging. Sources within this facility have told us the body was from Ayalon jail.
An Israeli organisation called ZAKA arranged for the body to be flown to Melbourne. Its religious band of volunteers are better known for recovering the remains of Israeli victims of terrorism.

On the 22nd of December, Ben Zygier, aka Alon was buried in a Jewish cemetery in suburban Springvale.
The story of Ben Zygier raises many questions. Why was he jailed and why the extraordinary cover up by the Israeli government? What is this matter of national security? And what did Australian authorities know? When Ben Zygier died in that prison what questions were asked by our diplomats and what were they told?
International protocols demand that when a foreign national is jailed or dies, their diplomatic mission must be informed.

BILL VAN ESVELD [Human Rights Watch: That is such a fundamental obligation, the obligation of one country to notify another when the other citizen has been arrested, detained, you know especially if they if they died. That is so basic that it's called customary law which means that even if Israel didn't ratify a treaty saying it has to notify the other country, it still has to do so because that is just such a basic norm of interstate relations.

BORMANN: So what did the Australian Embassy in Tel Aviv know? Foreign Correspondent lodged a Freedom of Information request to the Department of Foreign Affairs asking for any documents relating to Ben Zygier, also known as Ben Alon. DFAT told us there were documents relating to his imprisonment and death but we weren't entitled to see them because their release could have a substantial adverse impact on the proper and efficient conduct of consular operations. But curiously in their response to me DFAT referred constantly to a Mr Allen. When I asked for clarification, a department official told me that Ben Zygier, also known as Ben Alon, also carried an Australian passport bearing the name Ben Allen.

I caught up with Australia's Foreign Minister Bob Carr.

BOB CARR [Australian Foreign Minister]: I'm assured that there was no record of contact between his family and the Australian Embassy in Tel Aviv or DFAT in Canberra so on my advice the Australian government was not informed of his detention by his family or by anyone else.

BORMANN: Would you be having a word with the Israelis about this?

BOB CARR: I think I'd need something from his family to go on here. I'd need some.... maybe this program gives me enough to make an enquiry.

BORMANN: A couple of years ago Australian intelligence agencies were concerned at Australian Jew changing their names getting a new Australian passport and then working for the Mossad. Does it in itself trouble you?

BOB CARR: On the face of it, it does. Australians should not be working.... performing intelligence functions, intelligence gathering functions, for a foreign government using their passport. They would have breached I would guess half a dozen laws by doing that.

BORMANN: Over several months we've been trying to build a portrait of this young man from Melbourne and his tragic decline. We do know that Ben Zygier attended Jewish schools in Melbourne's south east, before studying law. His parents have chosen not to be involved in our story, and so have the many friends and acquaintances we've made contact with.

BILL VAN ESVELD [Human Rights Watch]: I have a feeling that the more that comes to light about the mistreatment, alleged mistreatment and death in custody of somebody who was disappeared - that should cause some waves. I think there's going to be a lot of discussion about that, which would be very good.

BORMANN: This is the tragedy of a young man from Melbourne whose fateful final months are cloaked in mystery and secrecy.
There is compelling evidence suggesting he and Prisoner X were the same man.
In all likelihood we'll never know what Prisoner X did to suffer such an extraordinary incarceration and to propel Israel into a security clampdown that would deny his very existence.

WARREN REED [Former ASIS agent]: Things might roll on in ten or 15 years and Mossad might agree to put out a sanitised version of what happened. I would doubt it. I think this is one of those things that would probably be under lock and key for 50... 75 years - if not, never to be released.

[Shot of grave stone: In loving memory of Ben Zygier 9.12.1976-15.12.2010]

[The Israeli Embassy in Canberra declined to comment.]

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New York Times

Prisoner X - The Australian Connection

ABC Online ‎- 22 hours ago
Who was Prisoner X and what had he done to end up secretly jailed in a high-tech cell and locked down under a nationwide media ban?

  1. Silenced in Israel, Spy Tale Unfolds in Australia

    New York Times ‎- 7 hours ago
    An Australian news report that identified a mysterious prisoner as a Mossad agent is testing Israeli censorship.
Israel's 'Prisoner X' was Australian Mossad agent, documentary claims


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