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Australia spy case mystery grips Israel

By AFP - Feb 14,2013 - Last updated at Feb 14,2013

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM — Speculation over the top-secret arrest and suicide of an Australian-Israeli in prison reached fever pitch Thursday amid allegations he may have been about to blow the whistle on sensitive Mossad operations.

The mystery surrounding the so-called Prisoner X, identified this week by Australian media as Mossad agent Ben Zygier, has dominated headlines in Israel and Australia despite a media blackout on publishing details about his arrest.

Zygier is believed to have died in December 2010 while in isolation at Ayalon prison in Ramle near Tel Aviv, in a case which Israel went to extreme lengths to cover up.

Late on Wednesday, Israel admitted it had imprisoned a man with dual nationality on security grounds who had committed suicide in jail in 2010, but did not identify him, nor did it confirm reports he worked for its shadowy spy agency, Mossad.

But an Israeli lawyer who met Zygier just days before his death confirmed that Mossad agents had been involved in the case, and said he saw no indication the prisoner was planning to kill himself.

According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, Australian intelligence officials believe that Zygier may have been about to reveal information about sensitive Mossad operations, including the use of falsified Australian passports, to either Canberra or to the media when he was arrested.

Zygier “may well have been about to blow the whistle, but he never got the chance,” said an Australian security official familiar with the case.

The report quoted Foreign Minister Bob Carr as saying Canberra had first learned of Zygier’s arrest “through intelligence channels” on February 24, 2010.

Just a week earlier, Dubai police had publicly accused Mossad agents of carrying out a January hit on a top Hamas fighter, saying they were looking for around a dozen people with Western passports — four of them Australian.

The move sparked a crisis between Israel and several Western governments, including Canberra, with the resultant freeze meaning “Zygier’s case wasn’t pursued further” by Australian intelligence or the foreign ministry, it said.

Shortly afterwards, it emerged that Australia’s overseas intelligence agency had been investigating Zygier on suspicion of using his passport to spy for Israel, the paper said, indicating he was one of at least three dual Australian-Israeli citizens being probed.

Earlier on Thursday, human rights lawyer Avigdor Feldman confirmed he had met Zygier just days before he was found hanged in his cell which was equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance gear.

“When I saw him, there was nothing to indicate he was going to commit suicide,” Feldman told army radio, saying he had gone to offer him advice ahead of his trial as talks were held over a plea bargain.

“He appeared rational, focused, he spoke clearly about the issue and didn’t exude any sense of self-pity,” Feldman said, expressing surprise that a prisoner in “a cell which was being monitored and checked 24-hours a day, could manage to commit suicide by hanging himself”.

In a separate interview with Kol BaRama radio station, Feldman confirmed Mossad involvement, saying: “The contact man from the Mossad, with whom I was in touch, informed me that unfortunately my client was no longer alive.”

So far, Israel has confirmed holding a security prisoner with dual nationality who was found dead in his cell in December 2010. It said an inquest recorded a verdict of suicide in a ruling issued just six weeks ago.

But other details of the case remained under a gag order, leaving what commentators said was a growing list of “numerous and disturbing questions”.

“Was there an attempt here by the relevant agencies, including the attorney general and the law enforcement organisations, to whitewash the affair and prevent an external investigation into the circumstances of his death?” asked Shimon Shiffer in the top-selling Yediot Aharonot.

Haaretz ran an editorial headlined: “It is forbidden to ‘disappear’ people” while commentator Amir Oren demanded an investigation.

“The negligence is so outrageous that an investigation is needed to disprove it, along with the other alternative — that someone pushed Zygier to his death, psychologically if not physically,” Oren wrote.

Senior political officials admitted Israel had made a “a terrible mistake when it tried to prevent publication of the story in Israel after it was released in Australia.

“We only magnified the story and significantly exacerbated the damage done to Israel’s image,” one official told Yediot.

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