Israeli spy saga raises press freedom questions

Friday - 2/15/2013, 3:40am EST

Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Foreign reports about the mysterious death of an Australian-Israeli Mossad agent in an Israeli prison two years ago have sparked a rare backlash against the country's well-respected security agencies.

Critics have accused the Israeli government of trying to cover up the affair and are demanding a full investigation, fueling a debate about balancing national security and freedom of information in a country that prides itself as a vibrant democracy.

"Israel is a democracy in its basis, but it doesn't adapt itself to the modern age actually," Avigdor Feldman, a lawyer who met the man dubbed "Prisoner X" shortly before his death, told The Associated Press on Thursday.

The sensational saga has dominated public discourse in Israel since it was first reported by Australia's public broadcaster on Tuesday. According to the report, an Australian-born Israeli man, Ben Zygier, who worked for Israel's Mossad spy agency was mysteriously imprisoned by Israel in 2010 and hanged himself several months later in a maximum-security cell. Zygier also used the names Ben Alon and Ben Allen, the report said.

Despite a whirlwind of foreign media reports easily accessible on the Internet, Israel maintained a gag order on the case for 24 hours. Late Wednesday, Israel acknowledged parts of the story, saying it had held a dual Israeli citizen under a false name for security reasons, and that he died in prison in 2010 from an apparent suicide.

The Israeli announcement did not identify the man and left key questions unanswered: What crime was Zygier accused of? Why was he confined to severe isolation? How did he commit suicide when he was under 24-hour surveillance? And why was the case hidden from the public for more than two years, even after it was reported in Australia?

"Israel is not Soviet Russia, Argentina or China, but a democracy bound to its citizens' human rights and that enables freedom of expression and publication," the liberal daily Haaretz wrote Thursday in an editorial. "The state's security must be protected, but not with totalitarian methods."

An Israeli court order, identifying the man only as John Doe, stressed that the prisoner's rights were respected, even if the case was kept out of the public eye. It said he was detained by court order and that his family was notified immediately afterward and kept up to date on all developments in the case. A thorough investigation concluded that he committed suicide in his cell, and the court named three Israeli lawyers who represented him.

What Zygier actually did remains a mystery, but various media reports have suggested that he used his Australian passport, perhaps under different names, to conduct covert operations for the Mossad. It appears that Australian authorities might have grown suspicious.

Feldman, one of Israel's most prominent defense attorneys, took part in the case, and said he visited Zygier just a day or two before the suicide.

Feldman told AP that Zygier denied the allegations being made against him and was considering a plea bargain at the time. Refusing to elaborate about the specific allegations against Zygier, he said the prisoner was rational and showed no signs of being suicidal.

"When I heard about it, I was shocked and amazed," he said, adding that his isolated conditions were excessively harsh and might have contributed to his suicide. "He was very adamant to fight his innocence in court. ... I remember very clearly that he claimed again and again that he was innocent and the feeling that he was pushed to admit something that he did not do."

Israel's Channel 10 said that in 2009 Australian intelligence officers interrogated Zygier about trips he took to Iran, Lebanon and Syria. The report alleged that the case was leaked to an Australian reporter who phoned Zygier and questioned him about his alleged links to the Mossad. The reporter, Jason Katsoukis, told Israel's Channel 2 TV that Zygier strongly denied the allegations. Zygier was arrested shortly after they spoke.

Australia's Brisbane Times reported that he was arrested by Israeli authorities shortly before he was about to reveal sensitive intelligence about Israel's use of foreign passports. Israeli TV has speculated that Zygier was imprisoned after committing some kind of act of treason.

The various reports, and Israel's attempts to stifle the case, have raised tough questions about the country's democracy at a time when it has to combat tough security challenges. It also is raising questions about whether Israel's system of censoring sensitive information or imposing gag orders is relevant in the Internet age.