CANBERRA, Australia — Australia's foreign minister said Thursday that his government was notified through Australian security channels of the arrest of an Australian-Israeli citizen in Israel in 2010 on serious security charges months before the man died in prison.
Israel acknowledged for the first time Wednesday that it held the Australia-born dual Israeli citizen under a false name for security reasons and that he died in prison more than two years ago – details that shed new light on a case that has strained relations with its close ally Australia and raised questions about its secretive Mossad agency.
The admission confirmed key elements of an Australian TV report while leaving unanswered major questions about the case, including the man's identity, why he was incarcerated, if he was an Australian citizen and whether he worked for Mossad.
The Australian government said the man's Australian passport had the name Ben Allen but he was also known as Ben Alon. His prominent Melbourne-based family knows him as Ben Zygier. He was referred to as Zygier or not referred to by name by senators during a Senate hearing on Thursday.
"The Australian government was informed in February 2010 through intelligence channels that the Israeli authorities had detained a dual Australian-Israeli citizen, and they provided the name of the citizen, in relation to serious offences under Israeli national security legislation," Foreign Minister Bob Carr told the Senate committee.
Australia sought assurances through a spy agency that Zygier's legal rights would be respected, he would have his choice of lawyer, his family had been notified of his arrest and that he was not being mistreated, he said.
"The Australian government relied on these assurances," Carr said.
"The Israeli government further advised the Australian government that the individual would be treated in accordance with his lawful rights as an Israeli citizen," he said.
Neither Zygier nor his family ever asked for consular assistance, Carr said.
The Australian Embassy was not informed of Zygier's detention until the day after he died on Dec. 15, 2010, department secretary Peter Varghese said.
Varghese said he did not know if the then-Foreign Minister Stephen Smith had been briefed.
"It's entirely possible that the minister might well have been briefed orally and given the nature of this case, that wouldn't surprise me," Varghese said.
"But since I don't have proof one way or another, I'm simply saying that I'm investigating that further," he added.
Varghese conceded that it was unusual for Australia to use security channels to seek assurances from a foreign government about the rights of a citizen.
"No, it's not normal practice and this is not a normal case," Varghese said.
"The initial advice that came to us on this case was through intelligence channels and the communication on this case has essentially remained through intelligence channels," he added.
He declined to say whether Australia's main spy agency ASIO or the highly secretive spy agency operated out of Australia's overseas diplomatic missions, ASIS, was the Australian intelligence channel that provided the information.
He also declined to comment on media reports that Zygier had been under investigation by ASIO.
Carr had told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television in a program that aired on Tuesday that his department only became aware of the Zygier's arrest after his death when his family asked for his remains to be repatriated.
Carr corrected the record on Wednesday and ordered his department to review its handling of the case.
The ABC report said Zygier was working for Mossad when he was placed in a maximum-security prison for an unspecified crime in 2010. The report said he died in December of that year, apparently by suicide.
Israel, which refused to acknowledge the Australian report for nearly 24 hours, partly lifted the veil of secrecy Wednesday.
Early in the day, it allowed Israeli media to report on the Australian news report. Then, late at night, a court order lifted parts of a series of gag orders dating to March 2010, and confirmed elements of the report.
Wednesday's court order, emailed to reporters by Israel's Justice Ministry, confirmed that an Israeli man who held dual citizenship in an undisclosed country died in custody in 2010.
Identifying the man only as the Hebrew equivalent of John Doe, the court order said the prisoner's family was notified immediately after he was detained. It said he was imprisoned under a court order and that the prisoner's full rights were retained. It named three Israeli lawyers who represented him.
The court order said that after the prisoner was found dead in his cell, a judge ordered an investigation into his death. About six weeks ago, the court statement said, the investigation concluded that he committed suicide. However, a judge has now asked the state to check for possible negligence.
In another curious wrinkle in the case, Israeli TV reported that Zygier had worked as a clerk in the international business department of one of Israel's most prestigious law firms, Herzog Fox & Neeman. The firm is partially owned by Israel's Justice Minister, Yaakov Neeman.
When asked in parliament about the Australian TV report on Tuesday, Neeman said he knew nothing of the case but said any allegations, if true, should be investigated.
Australian legislators demanded answers Wednesday about the suspicious death.
Among the lawmakers demanding clarifications was shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, who told ABC that she wanted to know why details of the case were being censored in Israel. She said she would raise the issue with the Israeli Embassy.
Information about the case emerged briefly in June 2010, when the Israeli news site Ynet reported on the existence of a prisoner – identified only as Prisoner X – whose crimes were unknown. The report was mysteriously removed from the site shortly after it was posted, apparently under pressure from Israel's military censor. The censor has authority to block or delete reports deemed threatening to national security.
Ynet then reported on Dec. 27, 2010, that a prisoner had committed suicide while in solitary confinement two weeks earlier. That report was also quickly removed.
The Israeli censor's office declined comment.
The ABC reported that Zygier moved from Australia to Israel in 2000, was 34, was married to an Israeli woman and was the father of two young children. 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 in 1995 assassinated then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Australia's foreign affairs department would not comment on what it described as the ABC's "speculation" on Allen's links to Mossad.
Israeli TV speculated that Zygier was imprisoned after committing some kind of act of treason.
Israeli Channel 10 TV reported that in 2009, Australian intelligence officers interrogated Zygier when he was in Australia, questioning him about trips to Iran, Lebanon and Syria.
The TV report alleged that the matter was leaked to an Australian reporter, who phoned Zygier and questioned him about his alleged Mossad links. He reportedly denied the allegations. The TV report said some time later, he was put in jail in Israel, and six months later he was found dead in his cell.
In Israel, media were prevented from reporting many details of the Zygier case because of a court-imposed gag order.
A death notice published online from December 2010 announced the funeral for Ben Zygier. He is listed as the son of Geoffrey Zygier, the executive director of the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation Commission based in Melbourne.
Zygier's father and his uncle, Willy Zygier, declined to comment on Thursday.
This is not the first alleged case of Israeli espionage involving an Australian passport. In May 2010, Australia ordered the expulsion of an Israeli diplomat after investigators concluded Israel was responsible for forging four Australian passports used by those responsible for the 2010 killing of a Hamas operative in Dubai.
At the time, Australia's then-Foreign Minister Smith said Israel had previously forged other Australian travel documents. He did not elaborate, but said the 2010 transgression breached "confidential undertakings" between the two countries that have stood for several years.
The affair caused strains in an otherwise very close relationship between the two countries.
Estrin reported from Jerusalem.