Israel Releases Part of Report on Prisoner X's Death

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JERUSALEM -- The man known as Prisoner X was found dead at 8:19 p.m. on Dec. 15, 2010, hanging by the neck in the shower of his cell. The noose was fashioned from a wet bedsheet, rolled and tied to the window bars. There was a hint of a sedative in his stomach, and a wound on his left hand, but neither contributed to his demise, which was caused by asphyxiation.

These and other details were revealed on Tuesday with the publication of part of a report on the Israeli government's investigation into the death of the man, who was identified in media reports last week as Benjamin Zygier, an Australian-Israeli. Mr. Zygier was held secretly in solitary confinement for months, awaiting trial on serious charges relating to national security.

The judge who conducted the investigation concluded that his death was a suicide and not "caused by a criminal act," according to the report. Still, it said, gaps in prison procedures created "a suicidal window of opportunity" that demands further investigation into possible negligence by the authorities, including "the higher echelons."

"There was no disagreement that a willing act of the deceased is what brought about his suicide," wrote the judge, Daphna Blatman Kedrai. "But the fact is that the mission of supervising the deceased according to known orders was not carried out." She added, "There is possible evidence to the guilt of elements in the prison authority in causing the death."

Much remains unclear about Mr. Zygier, who used the name Ben Alon in Israel and was 34 when he died. He grew up in a prominent Jewish family in Melbourne, Australia, and emigrated to Israel as a young man, serving in the Israeli military and working for a year as a lawyer in one of the nation's most prominent firms. News reports have suggested that he was an agent for Mossad, Israel's intelligence service, and that when he was arrested in February 2010, he may have been about to reveal secrets about how Israel used false Australian and other passports in intelligence operations.

But late Tuesday, the Israeli prime minister's office released a terse statement saying that Mr. Zygier "had no contact with the Australian security services and organizations," rebutting news reports that suggested otherwise. The statement, the first in which the government officially acknowledged Mr. Zygier by name, was issued "to clarify that there is excellent cooperation, full agreement and complete transparency between the State of Israel and its various organizations and the government of Australia and the Australian security organizations, as far as handling issues on the agenda are concerned."

An Israeli lawyer who met with Mr. Zygier said he was considering a plea bargain at the time of his death, which came a few days after the birth of his second daughter.

The investigative report was released Tuesday after Israeli news organizations contested a broad court order blocking coverage of the case. It came as the Executive Council of Australian Jewry issued a statement welcoming further investigation of the death by Australia's Foreign Ministry and an Israeli parliamentary committee, and after a member of Mr. Zygier's family spoke publicly about the case for the first time.

"We demand that Israel tell us exactly what happened to Ben," an unidentified family member was quoted by the Israeli daily Yediot Aharanot as saying. The part of the report that was released -- 10 of 29 pages, skipping paragraphs 15 to 33 -- indicates that the Zygier family supported the investigation, including an autopsy, and participated in the process. Three lawyers represented Mr. Zygier during the investigation, and his wife came before the judge at least once, the report says.

Judge Blatman Kedrai said in the report that she reviewed "extensive investigative material," including a "large number of testimonials" and "thick binders of documents." There were police photos and diagrams of the area where Mr. Zygier was found, objects taken from the cell, the prisoner's administrative and medical files, a diary of phone calls and video images from security cameras. Among the witnesses interviewed were the dead man's wife, mother and lawyer, the report said, as well as prison medical workers, social workers, guards and commanders, the report said, including "testimony taken under warning from workers of the prison authority with the suspicion of negligence in carrying out their jobs."

"The regulations for special supervision to prevent the danger of suicide were given," the judge wrote. "These regulations were not carried out."

The prison service released a statement late Tuesday saying it was examining the judge's report and had "drastically reduced" the number of suicides behind bars in recent years. "The prison service is aware of the weight it carries with regards to protecting the life of every prisoner or detainee no matter who he may be," the statement said. "The organization therefore regards the topic of suicidal among those incarcerated in prison facilities with the utmost importance."

Irit Pazner Garshowitz contributed reporting.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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