The Australian government said yesterday it would review how the Australian Foreign Ministry handled the case of an Australian-Israeli citizen found hanged in an Israeli prison cell, and Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr acknowledged officials had known of the man’s secret detention in 2010.
His statement followed an Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC) report on Tuesday that sought to lift the veil of secrecy from the case and revealed the man was suspected of links to Israel’s Mossad espionage agency.
Carr said a review would be carried out on the handling of the prisoner, who is named Ben Allen in his Australian passport.
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 (DFAT) 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 Web 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 two weeks earlier. That report, which said jailers took him down from his noose and unsuccessfully tried to revive him, was also quickly removed.
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-Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
DFAT said in a statement yesterday 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.
The Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz reported that Israeli 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 that could embarrass an unspecified government body.
Israeli TV reports, radio broadcasts and news Web sites were all quoting the ABC report yesterday 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 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, called on Israeli 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 said.
“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.”