By Numbers: The Details, and Mystery of Prisoner X's Death

The state's report on Ben Zygier's suicide is chilling not just because it describes a searing family tragedy, but because it reveals the systematic violation of a young man's human rights and the great lengths the state has gone to in order to cover up its apparent misdoings.

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I just finished reading a 28-page legal document, the report of the inquiry into the causes of death of Prisoner X. The document is blazoned with the menorah, the symbol of the State of Israel, under which appear the words “In camera – confidential/classified.” In the corner, someone has manually stamped the document “top secret.” There’s also a laconic title: “Re the investigation into the death of the late John Doe.”

But behind this laconic title, of course, lies an entire world – a searing human and family tragedy, along with what I viewed at the time, and continue to view, as a national catastrophe that necessitates an external probe by an independent commission of inquiry.

“The late John Doe” met his death on a black day for the State of Israel, December 15, 2010. The investigation into his death by hanging in Cell 15 of the Ayalon Prison lasted about 18 months. The inquiry report written by the judge in charge, Rishon Letzion Magistrate’s Court President Daphna Blatman Kedrai, was given in full to the press and the public on Thursday morning, April 25, 2013, at 10 A.M. It took a long time, and a lot of legal and journalistic effort, to get it.

The big news that emerges from the document after reading it is that there was no security justification for the gag order slapped on it. This is irrefutable proof of what I and others have repeatedly claimed ever since the case of Prisoner X came to light – that the Israeli legal system collaborated with the state and the defense establishment in hiding the truth about a grave incident, for reasons that had nothing to do with national security. And when this is true for the inquiry report, there is no choice but to continue demanding the disclosure of even more information and material related to this story. We have nothing to rely on but the truth itself.

Reading the report is chilling. At one point, I realized that I was reading it with my mouth hanging open and my hand over my mouth in instinctive astonishment. The report summarizes a serious, systematic probe, but within very specific limits. By its very nature, it deals with the story’s sorry ending while ignoring the lion’s share of what happened, and which ought to disturb every Israeli who cares about justice – the recruitment, handling, investigation and arrest under draconian conditions of a young Australian Jew, an ardent Zionist, a man with a wife and two young daughters, until the moment he met his death while in detention awaiting trial, still enjoying the presumption of innocence.

Before I reveal the main dramatic headlines that emerge from the report – and there are more than a few – I’d like to note what isn’t in the report. Here, too, there are more than a few things to say.

1. The judge did not personally visit the scene of the incident, nor did she conduct or request any supplemental inquiries. The entire investigation was the work of the Israel Police’s international investigations division.

2. There is no description of the medical findings from the attempted resuscitation and subsequent evacuation of the prisoner.

3. There is no reference to information about security personnel in civilian dress who were summoned to the scene, roamed about inside the cell, and didn’t let anyone else into it for many long minutes.

4. There is no reference to information that the paramedics’ entry into Ayalon Prison was delayed, or to the time that elapsed between the moment the call was received by the Magen David Adom ambulance service and the paramedics’ first encounter with the body of the deceased.

5. There is no reference to or documentation of the meeting that the prisoner, Ben Zygier, held at his own request with attorney Avigdor Feldman the day before he died. The prisoner requested this meeting to get a second opinion about the plea bargain he had been offered and about his chances of being acquitted if he chose to defend his innocence. Feldman was never questioned about this meeting.

6. There is no reference to the schedule of visits Zygier was entitled to in detention. A recent report by the Australian Foreign Ministry said his family visited him about 50 times during the approximately nine months he spent in jail. The Israeli inquiry report neither confirms nor denies this.

And now, here are the main headlines that emerge from the report:

1. There was severe and ongoing negligence in the day-to-day supervision of the prisoner. It was all a typical Israeli bluff. The cameras didn’t work; the infrared light didn’t work; equipment wasn’t replaced because there was no money; corners were cut; agreed-upon procedures were ignored; orders weren’t synchronized and coordinated; the relevant people didn’t all have the necessary information.

2. Zygier met with Israel Prison Service psychiatrists and social workers. He told them he had twice tried to commit suicide in the past. Note this well: A man recruited into the Mossad reported two previous suicide attempts. He also reported that he had received psychiatric treatment: He was diagnosed as suffering from anxiety disorders and prescribed psychiatric drugs. The prison doctors gave him tranquilizers and sleeping pills.

3. The day of Zygier’s death was no ordinary day; it was a dramatic one. At 11:10 A.M., his wife and one of his daughters came to visit. The visit included an unpleasant announcement. When the two left his cell, Zygier was seen to be crying and upset. He asked an intelligence noncom to accompany him to deliver a note to his wife; the noncom refused. Zygier tore up the note angrily. His wife then sought permission to go back into the cell to calm him down. When she left a few minutes later, he once again burst out crying.

4. That same day, in the afternoon, Zygier received an unusual phone call from his lawyer Moshe Mazor. Mazor wanted to know how Zygier was doing, and received permission to talk with him.

5. The morning’s incident with his wife and daughter was reported to the social worker and the intelligence officer. The wardens were asked to keep an eye on his condition. The unusual call from his lawyer was neither reported nor documented.

6. At one meeting with the social worker, Zygier showed her a self-inflicted wound on his hand. He said he was upset and had cut himself “to calm himself down,” but that he had no intention of committing suicide.

7. In the weeks before his death, Zygier was diagnosed as being in very poor emotional shape. Nevertheless, no change was made in the assessment of his risk of committing suicide. He continued to be classified as a Level B risk rather than being upgraded to Level A or A+, which are the highest risk levels.

8. Classification as a Level B risk requires an inmate to either have another inmate in his cell or be in a cell with cameras. Since Zygier was supposed to be kept in isolation, he was put in a cell with cameras. But one of the cameras didn’t work.

9. The conditions of secrecy and isolation in which Zygier was held prevented the wardens and medical staff from being given full information about the circumstances of his arrest and his legal situation.

10. In her conclusion, the judge unequivocally recommended that members of the prison staff be indicted for negligence in preserving Zygier’s life. But the prosecution didn’t obey this recommendation. According to information I have received, this created a great deal of tension between the judge on one hand and the police and prosecution on the other. According to additional information I have received, the prosecution considered reopening the issue in recent months. But according to an official statement issued recently, the original decision hasn’t changed, and there will be no indictments in this case. This is strange, because the full report clearly attests to a series of failures and includes an unequivocal recommendation by the judge. So why is the state afraid to put anyone on trial? Does someone fear that things will start coming out in court, and that the defendants and the entire Prison Service will then have a chance to defend themselves, and that perhaps more things will then emerge from this Pandora’s Box?

So what really happened?

The State of Israel recruited a young man into its intelligence services who was emotionally unstable, who by his own report had undergone psychiatric treatment and twice tried to kill himself. After he went astray in some fashion at his job, he was investigated and arrested, held in isolation, diagnosed as being at risk of committing suicide, but not handled accordingly. He was offered a plea bargain that included a double-digit prison sentence, his emotional state deteriorated, and on the day of his death, there was a dramatic incident that left him crying and upset. But at the end of the day, he still succeeded in hanging himself in the bathroom, in a cell where one camera was broken and the infrared light that was supposed to enable him to be seen wasn’t working.

The investigation of his death lasted about 18 months, included certain gaps and deficiencies, and was hidden from the public. Finally, the judge’s recommendation to indict those suspected of negligence that led to his death wasn’t accepted by the state. What is left to say, to the glory of the State of Israel?

Why was he recruited into the Mossad to begin with? What lapses were there in his recruitment and the way he was handled? What were the crimes that he allegedly committed? Did they justify his detention under draconian conditions and his indictment as a dangerous traitor (lest you’ve forgotten, an anonymous braggart who works for the system said at the time that “Zygier died from shame”)? Did this entire story, including the violation of his human rights, justify complete secrecy and a sweeping, hermetic gag order even after his death?

There are too many questions that the inquiry report obviously can’t answer. Indeed, in my view, it merely sharpens them. In her report, Judge Daphna Blatman Kedrai inadvertently provided a neat, precise summation: “the case of his death in detention.” I always liked understatement.

The whole story is beyond my understanding.

Is there anyone who still thinks there’s no need for an external, independent investigation into this case? 

The mock-up of Ben Zygier's passport.Credit: Screenshot ABC

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