Last updated: 17 February, 2013

Australia seeks answers from Israel on “Prisoner X”

Canberra said Sunday it was seeking answers from Israel over the death in 2010 of an Australian known as “Prisoner X” in a Tel Aviv jail as part of its own probe into the case.

Foreign Minister Bob Carr said his office was preparing a formal report into the circumstances surrounding the death of the prisoner, identified in Australian media as Ben Zygier, 34, who Israel says committed suicide.

That the detainee, held in a high security prison under continuous surveillance, managed to hang himself has raised questions and fed conspiracy theories that have been reported by the Israeli and Australian media.

Many questions remain unanswered in the mysterious case, with a senior unnamed Israeli official telling The Australian newspaper that Australian officials had interrogated the prisoner on suspicion of spying for Mossad.

Carr said foreign office chief Peter Varghese was preparing a report which would “canvass all the consular contact between Australia and between Israel” including contact between security agencies.

“We have asked the Israeli government for a contribution to that report,” Carr told reporters in Sydney.

“We want to give them an opportunity to submit to us an explanation of how this tragic death came about.”

If the report showed “any areas where we can improve our contact in consular cases like this”, Carr said, “it will have practical effect when there are cases in the future where an Australian citizen is treated in a comparable way.”

“I need to know what the contact was between Australian agencies and those of Israel, and I need to see what the Israelis want to tell Australia,” he said. “The key is to get all the information.”

Carr, foreign minister since early 2012, originally said the Australian government had not been informed of the prisoner’s plight.

He later backtracked on this claim, conceding that Canberra was told in February 2010 — 10 months before the death — that Israel had detained an Australian-Israeli citizen on national security grounds.

Carr’s predecessor Kevin Rudd, foreign minister at the time of the prisoner’s death, said Sunday it was important that Australia “get to the bottom of this”.

“(I was) deeply surprised to hear not only had this person been incarcerated, but subsequently died in custody,” Rudd told Sky News.

“The tradition of this government has to be robust on these matters, even with a country with whom we’ve had the friendliest of relationships.”