Zygier
An image of Zygier on the front page of an Australian newspaper. Photo by AFP
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Second Prisoner X
Second Prisoner X

At least one person convicted of a security crime is being held in an Israeli prison under harsh conditions of isolation. His identity and the reasons for his imprisonment have been kept secret under a gag order, so the media calls him “Prisoner X,” the standard terminology for employees of the security services who go astray and are tried in secret. His existence was revealed in the inquiry report on the suicide of former Mossad agent Ben Zygier, who was also incarcerated in secret ‏(“Documents show Israel held other unnamed inmate at same time as Zygier,” Amir Oren, July 9‏).

In response to this disclosure various officials insisted that everything was fine: The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is supervising the case, the prisoner’s family knows and his rights are being upheld in prison. But these claims are unconvincing. Sources in the Israel Prison Service told Haaretz reporter Shay Fogelman about the complete isolation in which the prisoner is held, in a windowless cell and guarded by jailers who don’t even know who he is. His family, an unwilling party to the secret, has accepted these severe restrictions lest they be made even more stringent.

In a democratic country, even prisoners have a name and they aren’t hidden from the public under a veil of secrecy. There is no other way, nor can there be, to preserve the basic human rights to which even those charged and convicted of security offenses are entitled - even if their case is “exceptionally grievous,” to quote Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Avigdor Lieberman.

The Zygier case showed that strict secrecy mainly serves the security establishment, which wants to whitewash embarrassing failures and cover up for the people responsible for them. Only after Zygier’s arrest and suicide were reported in Australia did disciplinary proceedings begin against the prison service personnel who were negligent in guarding him and did the Knesset begin looking into the matter. Until the case was published, the governmental, parliamentary and legal supervisory systems all participated in a conspiracy of silence.

“Disappearing” people is a practice befitting benighted regimes, not a democratic country like Israel. State secrets must be protected, but not at the price of such a severe violation of human rights. There’s no justification for secrecy and isolation that continue even many years after the suspect has been tried and jailed.

The security services are strong enough to handle criticism of their failures without hiding behind “Prisoners X, Y and Z.” The names of these anonymous criminals and the reasons for their imprisonment must be made public.