AN AUSTRALIAN diplomat knew that Melbourne man Ben Zygier was being held in an Israeli prison before he died in his cell, the government has admitted, amid explosive reports that Mr Zygier was a Mossad agent known as ”Prisoner X”.
Foreign Minister Bob Carr was forced into an embarrassing backflip on Wednesday as he ordered his department to investigate the Zygier case.
His office was forced to correct earlier claims that the Australian embassy in Tel Aviv knew nothing of the case until after Mr Zygier died in prison in December 2010 when his family – a prominent Jewish family in Melbourne – asked for his body to be repatriated.
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In a revelation that raises questions about the extent of the Australian government’s knowledge, Senator Carr’s spokesman said an Australian diplomat – who was not the ambassador – was aware that Mr Zygier, 34, was being held by Israeli authorities.
The revelation follows a report by the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent that said Mr Zygier was the notorious ”Prisoner X”, an inmate held in the utmost secrecy in a special section of Israel’s maximum security Ayalon prison.
The report stated that Mr Zygier, a husband and father of two, moved to Israel around 2000 and became a Mossad spy. But the report said something went tragically wrong with his intelligence activities and he eventually committed suicide in a tightly guarded cell, where he was being held in solitary confinement.
His father, Geoffrey Zygier, executive director for B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission, did not comment on Wednesday.
The government acknowledges Mr Zygier died in jail but Senator Carr’s spokesman could not confirm that it was Ayalon prison. The Foreign Affairs Department refused to say who the official was or when they knew of the case.
As Fairfax Media reported in 2010, ASIO was investigating at least three dual citizens for their links to Mossad. We reveal now that Mr Zygier was one of them.
The issue has sparked a political storm in Israel, where opposition politicians demanded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lift a veil of secrecy surrounding Mr Zygier’s death and brief the Knesset foreign affairs and defence committee.
Outgoing Justice Minister Yaakov Neema vowed that ”if true, the matter must be looked into”.
With TOM ARUP and STEPHEN CAUCHI
David Wroe and Ruth Pollard
Published: February 14, 2013 – 12:01PM
Copyright © 2013 Fairfax Media