Senior Official: Just a Handful of Prisoners Held in Israel Without Public's Knowledge

In Zygier's case, the source said, his family was notified immediately, he was represented by a lawyer and his case was prosecuted as a regular criminal case in a district court.

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In recent decades a handful of prisoners have been held in detention in Israel under fictitious name and without it being a matter of public's knowledge, a senior legal source with knowledge of the Ben Zygier case said Thursday. While some of these cases ultimately were made public, others were never publicized, the source said.

The comments follow disclosure over the past several days that Zygier, a dual citizen of Israel and Australia, who according to news reports, worked for Israel's Mossad intelligence agency, had been held for months in 2010 before apparently committing suicide in jail. His case and his incarceration were the subject of a sweeping gag order in Israel until this week. The order was partially lifted after the Australian Broadcasting Corporation aired a program about the case.

The senior legal source added that without confirming Zygier's name, "the prisoner received all his rights." The fact that the prisoner had been held under another name, was only done to protect the public interest and state security, the source added. "It was also designed to protect his [Zygier's] own well-being too."

"There have been just a few isolated cases like this," the legal official said, "and in those instances, the prisoner was held in identical conditions to what is accepted [in other cases]. The only difference is the non-disclosure of their names and that they are held under fictitious names." Despite media reports that Zygier was known as Prisoner X and that in effect authorities had caused his disappearance, the source said such prisoners are not known as X and do not disappear.

"There are no Prisoner Xs in the State of Israel," he said. "It's a term from Argentina and dictatorships where people have disappeared and have sat without any contact with the world. There is no such thing in Israel." When asked if there are currently other prisoners in Israel who are in detention under fictitious names and without public knowledge of their cases, the source said: "I am not a security official. It's important to note that this is something very rare and exceptional."

In Zygier's case, the source said, his family was notified immediately, he was represented by a lawyer and his case was prosecuted as a regular criminal case in a district court. "Everything was under judicial oversight. In the other [similar] rare instances in the past, those sentenced to prison who had furloughs coming to them according to the rules, got the furloughs. In this case, it never got to such a situation, because he was never sentenced."

When asked if Zygier had been denied rights that had been accorded to other prisoners in solitary confinement, the official said: "I don't remember exactly what was denied him. He met with a lawyer, he had court proceedings, an indictment was filed, the trial was begun, and unfortunately during the course of the proceedings, the man committed suicide."

The circumstances of his death were investigated in court and it was found that Zygier had committed suicide, the source confirmed, but the investigating judge also decided to refer the case to the state prosecutor's office to examine whether there was negligence in not preventing Zygier's suicide. "The decision was handed down just a few weeks ago, and the case is now being examined by the [office of the] state prosecutor by a serious individual," the source said, adding that the state is considering a further change to the gag order so the circumstances of Zygier's death can be disclosed.

The source also sought to come to the state's defense on the handling of the case. "The defamatory remarks, really there is no other term for it, as if the State of Israel were conducting itself like a dictatorship, as if people disappear and their families don't know, that's nonsense. It's simply irresponsible reporting. This is a democracy, and it is precisely in cases such as these that there is additional oversight. Generally [these cases] are handled and followed by senior officials in the judicial system, as was true in this case. And by followed, I mean that the indictment is approved by the most senior level officials. We don't check to see how [the prisoner] is doing. We don't go to his cell to see him. There is a prison service for that, but we follow his case in the sense that we ensure that the [the prisoners'] rights are being respected."

"We don't hold prisoners [and deprive them of] contact with the outside world and their lawyers. And with all the baseless reporting that there was here, in Israel there is no way that in the name of state security prisoners' rights would be violated," the source said. "Sometimes there are instances in which you need to isolate [a prisoner] so the secrets that such a person or another has do not get out and so people don't talk too much, but that is something that is acceptable in the prison service."

With regard to criticism that the state has been slow to act to lift press gag orders, as in the Zygier case, after news of the case is reported abroad, the source said: "From the moment that it's clear that something is going to be reported, we've said: 'We'll wait and see what is reported and based on that will limit the gag order.' Last Tuesday at 3 P.M., the investigative report in Australia was aired, and at about 7 or 8 P.M., we asked to limit the total gag order to allow everything that was being reported abroad to be reported [in Israel]."

"We know the world has changed today," the official acknowledged. "We're not living in the past. It took a few hours because we need to see what exactly has been reported. There was a consensus among security officials to narrow the [gag order], and we asked that it be narrowed. We saw the flood [of reporting] and said we need to come out with an official statement from the State of Israel."

The entrance of Ayalon Prison last year.Credit: Moti Milrod
The isolation cell in which Ben Zygier, known as 'Prisoner X,' was incarcerated.Credit: Haaretz

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