CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — The Australian government said Wednesday it would review how the Foreign Ministry handled the case of an Australian-Israeli citizen found hanged in an Israeli prison cell, and Foreign Minister Bob Carr acknowledged Australian officials had known of the man’s secret detention in 2010.
His statement followed an Australian Broadcasting Corp. report on Tuesday that sought to lift the veil of secrecy from a case that Israel has long kept under wraps and revealed the man was suspected of links to Israel’s Mossad espionage agency.
Carr said a review would be done on his department’s handling of the prisoner, who is named in his Australian passport Ben Allen. He was also known as Ben Alon and was born Ben Zygier, and it is not certain that the passport name is genuine.
Carr revealed that some Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials knew in 2010 that Allen was detained, contradicting an earlier DFAT statement that it only became aware after he died.
In June 2010, the Israeli news site Ynet briefly reported on the existence of a prisoner — identified only as Prisoner X — whose crimes were unknown, but that report was removed from the site shortly after it was posted.
Ynet then reported on Dec. 27, 2010, that a prisoner had committed suicide while in solitary confinement two weeks earlier. That report, which said jailers took him down from his noose and unsuccessfully tried to revive him, was also quickly removed.
Israel’s military censor has the authority to block or even delete reports deemed threatening to national security. The censor’s office declined comment.
The ABC reported that the prisoner, who it referred to as Ben Zygier, migrated from Australia to Israel in 2000 and had worked for Mossad. It reported that his incarceration was top secret, but did not say why he had been arrested.
It said he hanged himself in a cell that had been specially designed for Yigal Amir, the Jewish ultranationalist who assassinated then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
DFAT said in a statement Wednesday that the Australian embassy in Tel Aviv was unaware of Allen’s detention until his death was reported by his family, who requested repatriation of his remains.
Carr’s office said in a statement: “DFAT has now advised that some officers of the department were made aware of Mr. Allen’s detention at the time in 2010 by another Australian agency.” His office declined to identify that agency.
Carr told DFAT boss Peter Varghese to “review the handling of this consular case,” the statement said.
DFAT would not comment on what it described as the ABC’s “speculation” on Allen’s links to Mossad. The department said it cannot comment on intelligence matters, “alleged or actual.”
Carr said the concept of Australians working for Mossad was troubling. But the Zygier family would need to contact him before he would take the matter further with Israel.
“Australians should not be working, performing intelligence gathering functions for a foreign government using their passport,” Carr told ABC.
“They would have breached, I would guess, half-a-dozen laws by doing that,” he added.
The Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office called an “emergency meeting” of a forum of Israeli newspaper editors on Tuesday. It said the editors were asked not to publish a story reported in the foreign media that could embarrass an unspecified government body.
Israeli TV reports, radio broadcasts and news websites were all quoting the ABC report Wednesday after Israel’s military censorship office permitted them to do so, but there was still a gag order on other details of the case.
The prime minister’s office, the Foreign Ministry, Israeli Prisons Service and the Shin Bet domestic security agency all declined comment.
The wall of silence drew angry reactions in Israel’s parliament, where opposition lawmakers urged the government to come clean.
Ahmad Tibi, an Arab lawmaker and prominent government critic, called on Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman to explain what happened. “Do you confirm the fact that an Australian citizen committed suicide in a prison under a fake identity and without it being published?” he asked.
“I cannot answer these questions because the matter does not fall under the authority of the Justice Minister,” Neeman said in response. “But there is no doubt that if true, the matter must be looked into.”
Zehava Gal-On, leader of the opposition Meretz Party, questioned why journalists had been summoned to the prime minister’s office. “Does it seem legitimate to you that the prime minister’s office summons the editors committee to prevent the publication of an affair that could embarrass Israel?” she asked.
Avigdor Lieberman, a top political ally to Netanyahu and former foreign minister, chided the members of parliament who demanded answers about the case, despite the gag order, calling it “an attempt to harm state security.” He told Army Radio “these people time and again try to harm, to justify the enemy. These people also identify with the enemy in war time.”
According to the ABC report, the Australian migrated to Israel in 2000, was 34, married to an Israeli woman and the father of two young children.
A death notice published online from December 2010 announced the funeral for Ben Zygier. He is listed as the son of Geoffrey.
Geoffrey Zygier is the executive director of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission, an Australian Jewish organization based in the southern city of Melbourne that combats anti-Semitism. He declined to comment when contacted Wednesday.
A wedding photo shown on the Australian TV report, labeled with the Zygier family name, pictures a bald man next to a bride. A close up of the man is posted on the ABC website and identified as the prisoner.
The last previously known case of Israeli authorities seeking to suppress knowledge of a detainee was of Arab engineer Dirar Abu Sisi, 42, who vanished after boarding a train in Ukraine on Feb. 19, 2011, only to resurface in Israel three weeks later in detention.
In that case, an Israeli court issued a gag order on his detention.
Abu Sisi was ultimately accused of masterminding Hamas’ rocket program and training fighters in the Gaza Strip Gaza. He is charged with attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder and weapons production.