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The Strange Case of “Prisoner X”

The Suicide of Ben Zygier

by BINOY KAMPMARK

For those of you thinking of taking out Australian citizenship, a word of friendly advice: don’t.  It doesn’t matter that you have no aspirations of going in the footsteps of David Hicks, who became the unshakeable totem of paranoia and vengeance on the part of the Australian government during the ‘war on terror’, or Mamdouh Habib, picked up in Pakistan in 2001 for vague and spurious connections with terror cells.  It doesn’t matter that, because of Canberra’s complicity in the fate of these men, their minds have turned to mush, and their family lives ruined.

The fact remains that Australia’s strained consular efforts, when Canberra remembers to fund them, show a distinct lack of interest in intervening, representing and discussing the fate of its citizens.  More to the point, it shows that cultivated ignorance is its metier.  If you can outsource interrogations, torture, and the judicial procedure, an Australian consular official is the person you are looking for.  A bit of cost cutting goes a long way.

The latest example of this, another glorious notch on Canberra’s belt of infamous indifference, comes with the revelations that dual national Ben Zygier (or Allen, or Alon), known as “Prisoner X”, was found hanged in an isolation cell in Wing 15 of Ramle’s Ayalon Prison on December 15 2010.  It was designed to be suicide proof, though this was exactly what it did not prevent.  In the bowels of Israeli detention, Zygier languished, a being who, for all intents and purposes, had ceased to “exist”.

The smoke around Zygier’s fate is thick with speculation.  Was he a Mossad agent, which he claimed in confidence to two friends?  Why did the Australians not disclose his existence, his false name, let alone death sooner?  (The Foreign Minister Bob Carr initially pleaded complete ignorance on the subject.)  It has been reported that Australian authorities were “baffled by the case”, which is perhaps the least baffling feature of this entire episode.  The Australian foreign ministry, DFAT, was only told about Zygier’s demise when his family contacted it to assist bringing the body back to Australia.  Even Zygier’s funeral in Melbourne’s Springvale in 2010 went totally unnoticed.  An Australian citizen in need is an Australian citizen abandoned.

One deservedly unnamed official offered his unimaginative appraisal, suggesting that mystery is always a good substitute for sentience.  “There could be James Bond-style story there” (News Limited Network, Feb 13).  Former Australian secret service agent Warren Reed certainly felt that some spice was needed for this dish, coming in the form of a cliché.  “Truth is often stranger than fiction” (Australian Financial Review, Feb 15).

Sadly, this is less a tale of Ian Fleming vintage than one of squalid actions and plain espionage, with Canberra’s hood-winked officials limping behind.  Which then begs the question as to how hoodwinked they really were.  Certainly, those hoods had slits for one particular Australian diplomat, who claimed knowledge that Israel was holding Zygier prior to the inmate’s suicide.

According to Haaretz (Feb 14), “Prisoner X” was in contact with Australian intelligence contacts suggesting he might well have been dabbling in the dangerous world of double espionage.  There is a more than faint suggestion that he was going to let a particularly aggressive cat out of the bag: Mossad’s activities in Australia, possibly those relating to the use of Australian passports in Israeli assassination operations.  Another untested, even more exotic theory is that Zygier might have been privy to information that Iran’s nuclear program was not quite the dangerous beast Israel makes it out to be.  But with all that said, Mossad is Israel’s prophet and insuperable arm of government – question it, and its actions, at your peril.

This might well have been a coup for Australia’s famously daft and bungling agency ASIO, not that it would have mattered much.  Mossad simply does what other agencies do, just with that degree of impunity that makes their colleagues in that line of work swoon.  The take offered by Amir Oren is that the Zygier story has little to do with Australia, shedding light on the dysfunctional security agencies Israel operates.  “Case 8493, which includes the story of a prisoner whom the State of Israel admitted [on Wednesday] existed, until he stopped existing, is not an Australian story” (Haaretz, Feb 14)

The incident barely rippled in Israel, till Haaretz disclosed that Benjamin Netanyahu’s Office had called an emergency meeting of the Israeli Editors Committee on Tuesday.  The agenda there was preventing the publication of “sensitive and potentially embarrassing information”, which immediately spiked interest in the case. Not only had an Israeli effectively disappeared into the security maze, but he so happened to be a dual national.

The case is more likely to be of greater concern to Israelis than Australians, leaving aside Zygier’s friends and family, who should start accepting that their passport brings with it qualified privileges and no obligations on the part of their provider.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com