Australian immigrant Ben Zygier, reported to have been recruited by Israel's Mossad spy agency, was charged with grave crimes and was negotiating for a plea bargain before he committed suicide in an Israeli jail, one of his lawyers said on Thursday.
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Attorney Avigdor Feldman told Army Radio on Thursday that he met with Ben Zygier – also known as "Prisoner X" and by the aliases Ben Alon, Ben Allen, and Ben Burrows – in Ayalon Prison two days before his apparent suicide and that the prisoner appeared "rational, focused and to the point."
According to Feldman, Zygier’s family had hired him to advise Zygier about a plea bargain that had been formulated with the State Prosecutor’s office. Zygier maintained his innocence, Feldman said.
“I visited him at the place where he was being held. He was facing a judiciary crossroads and he asked me to give my opinion about his decision as well,” the attorney told Army Radio.
An indictment had been filed against Zygier, Feldman said, but the trial had not yet begun.
“His status was ‘detained until the completion of proceedings,’ and there were negotiations under way with top people at the State Prosecutor’s Office in an attempt to reach a plea bargain. He asked for advice,” Feldman said. “Since I was not familiar with the material, I sat and listened to him patiently. To my mind, he sounded rational and focused and he spoke to the point. He did not display any special feeling of self-pity.”
Zygier appeared anxious about the trial, Feldman stressed. “Don’t get the sense that this was a relaxed conversation at a café," he said. "Clearly he was under pressure; clearly he was very concerned about the trial. He also declared his innocence. Let us not forget, the man hadn’t been convicted. An indictment had been filed against him that hadn’t gotten to the trial stage. He had been informed that he could very likely expect to be sentenced to an extremely lengthy prison term and to be shunned by his family – and this affects a person’s soul.”
Feldman told Army Radio that he was aware Zygier – whose real name he knew – was being held under a false name. “I saw this as something inappropriate but I did not take legal measures, based on the assumption that he was in the good hands of the lawyers who were representing him,” he said.
Feldman added that the security services were cooperative, allowing him to meet with Zygier. Two days after the meeting, a security services liaison called to inform him of his client's suicide, he said.
Yet Feldman was critical of the security services' failure to protect his client. “Those responsible for him should have taken clear steps to watch over him,” he said, “especially because he was far from the public eye. The end of the affair is something that needs to be investigated.”
Feldman also criticized the courts' handling of the affair, claiming that the justification for gag orders must be constantly reexamined as further events unfold.
“In my understanding the courts are not sufficiently sensitive to this," he said. "Clearly when a security person comes with security claims, from here until further notice, the judge gets alarmed – what does he know?”
Australia FM backtracks, says knew of Zygier's arrest and death in 2010
In an apparent reversal on previous statements, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said on Thursday his ministry had known about Zygier's jailing in Israel as early as February 2010. On Wednesday he said Australian diplomats in Israel only found out about the detention after his death in custody later that year.
Zygier, who came from a prominent Jewish family in Australia and was buried in Melbourne, had been married with two young children. His relatives have declined all comment on the case.
Former friends in Australia said Zygier had been a lawyer and used to recount stories of his time in the Israeli military. Israel's Channel Two TV said Zygier had trained in the private law office of Yaakov Neeman, now the country's justice minister.
"I remember drinking with Ben one night in 2001 when here counted his famous story of taking a bullet in the posterior," former colleague Patrick Durkin wrote in the Australian Financial Review newspaper.
Australian Foreign Ministry secretary Peter Varghese told lawmakers that the arrest of Zygier had not been secret because both his family and Australian intelligence officials had been notified.
Yet the official secrecy over the Zygier report, reinforced by military censors, caused an outcry in Israel, where reporters noted that their compatriots were but a mouse-click away from learning about the case from foreign media.