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Israel's mystery prisoner emerges from shadows


A profile of "Prisoner X", an Australian Jew found dead in a high security cell in Israel, is emerging from the shadows more than two years after his death with reports claiming he was a spy for Mossad.

Any news about the man unveiled this week to be Ben Zygier, who moved to Israel more than a decade ago and officially committed suicide in 2010, had been censored by Israel.

ABC television named the prisoner and now more details of who he was and how he lived are trickling out.

The family, including his father Geoffrey Zygier, an executive director of B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation Commission, has refused to comment. But they have certainly not abandoned their son, known affectionately as "Benji".

A large polished stone grave lies in the Chevra Kadisha Jewish cemetery in Melbourne, "In loving memory of Ben Zygier, Beloved husband of Maya, Adoring father of Romi and Yuli, Cherished son of Louise and Geoffrey."

Undated photographs have been published of a shaven-headed, smiling young man, dressed casually. Other snaps show Zygier striking a serious pose in his Israeli army uniform, sleeves rolled up and a rifle under his arm.

Patrick Durkin described him as "my lawyer friend" and detailed fond memories of nights out in Melbourne while qualifying.

The revelations had "sent a shock wave through my group of lawyer friends, who all completed our articles with Ben at law firm Deacons (now Norton Rose) in 2001," Durkin wrote in Thursday's Australian Financial Review.

"I remember drinking with Ben one night in 2001 when he recounted his famous story of taking a bullet in the posterior during his military service in Israel, which he served shortly before joining our group.

"He described in vivid detail patrolling the front line and backtracking across war-torn countryside while gunfire peppered the ground," Durkin said.

"He was proud of his time in the military, despite our endless teasing about the wound we never asked to see.

"I remember passionately debating the finer points of the Israel-Palestine conflict with Ben, who was obviously deeply engaged with the issue."

Zygier also played in an inter-law Australian Rules football tournament called the Winneke Cup, "where short but strong 'five-foot something' Ben dominated on the ball.

"Most of us remember him as a serious young man who was largely aloof from the rest of our tight-knit group," Durkin added.

Zygier attended Bialik College in Melbourne which is described as a "co-educational, Zionist, Jewish day school" on its website.

The 34-year-old reportedly moved back to Israel more than 10 years ago, married, started a family and became known as Ben Alon.

Israel is suppressing information about how and why Zygier ended his life in the virtual isolation of a state-of-the-art surveillance cell designed to prevent suicide.

The Israel Prisons Service noted he was an Israeli citizen who also held foreign citizenship.

"For security reasons the man was held under a false identity although his family was immediately informed of his arrest," the justice ministry said.

An inquiry ruled he took his own life, the ministry said, but failed to confirm his identity or the charges against him.

"The prisoner was held in jail under a warrant issued by a court. The individual rights of the prisoner were retained, subject to the provisions of the law."

All other details of the case remain under an Israeli gag order.

The story first surfaced in June 2010 when Israel's Ynet news website briefly ran a report about a prisoner whose identity and alleged crime were not even known to his jailers.

That was quickly taken offline and a media blackout imposed, but it resurfaced Tuesday after an investigation by Australia's public broadcaster.

The same day Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called an urgent meeting with top editors to ask them to withhold "publication of information pertaining to an incident that is very embarrassing to a certain government agency," Haaretz newspaper said, in a clear allusion to Mossad.

The veil of secrecy has partly lifted on the case, but Zygier's alleged crime against Israel may never be revealed.