In Israel, the news that a second prisoner is serving a jail sentence in top-secret conditions has triggered human rights concerns and raised questions about the transparency of the justice system.
A prominent Israeli criminal lawyer says the detainee, referred to as Prisoner X2, is a member of the nation’s covert security forces and has been held behind bars for years.
In February this year, an Australian TV report about another anonymous prisoner shook the Israeli security establishment and threatened to destabilize Israel’s relations with Australia. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation revealed that a man referred to as Prisoner X, who died in jail in December 2010, was a Jewish immigrant to Israel from Melbourne.
Ben Zygier had joined, then betrayed, the Mossad Israeli spy agency. He was arrested in February 2010 and held in a top-security cell in Israel’s Ayalon Prison. Even his guards did not know his name, and Israel’s courts imposed a media blackout on even mentioning the case. According to media reports, Zygier’s crime was revealing the identities of Mossad operatives in Lebanon. Zygier later hanged himself with a sheet in the shower of his cell. Guards who were supposed to be monitoring his cell said the camera malfunctioned and they were short staffed on the night Zygier died.
Israel’s Justice Ministry released a statement July 9 about Zygier. It included a mention of a second prisoner held in similar conditions, who has become known as Prisoner X2. Israeli criminal attorney Avigdor Feldman, who met with both detainees, told Israeli radio that, like Zygier, Prisoner X2 was also an Israeli citizen and a part of Israel’s covert security operations. However, he noted that the charges against Prisoner X2 were “more grave, more astounding and more fascinating” than those leveled against Zygier. Feldman did not detail the charges and declined to answer DW’s questions.
The Zygier case shook the Israeli establishment
The secret wings and blocks of Israel’s prisons are reserved for those considered to be its most dangerous criminals. Zygier’s cell was previously assigned to Yigal Amir, who assassinated late Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin.
Following the report of a second Prisoner X, legislator Miri Regev called a meeting to discuss the circumstances of his or her incarceration. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel appealed to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to end the prisoner’s isolation and lift a media blackout on the case.
“We cannot accept a situation in which a man is arrested, tried, and imprisoned in complete secrecy, and prevented from any possibility of contact with other persons on a daily basis,” ACRI attorney Lila Margalit said in a statement. “The ‘Prisoner X’ affairs prove again that without public scrutiny, it is impossible to safeguard the rights of suspected, accused or convicted persons.”
A senior Israeli government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the veiled arrests were necessary to safeguard important matters of national security. He noted that both secret prisoners were given access to defense lawyers and their families.
“The security services in Israel have a crucial job in protecting the citizens of Israel against the threats that are out there, but those security services work within the framework of the law,” he said.
Israel has a history of secretive episodes
The recent Prisoner X cases recall other episodes in Israel. In 1995, an Israeli court order lifted a gag order on seven convicted spies held secretly. The most famous was Professor Avraham Marcus Klingberg, who was a senior researcher at the Israel Institute for Biological Research. He disappeared in 1983 and resurfaced a decade later in the Ashkelon prison, where he was held after being secretly sentenced to 20 years for spying for the Soviet Union. Klingberg was jailed under the false name of Avraham Greenberg. He was released in 1998 and placed under house arrest until he left the country after finishing his sentence in 2003.
Another prisoner on the list of seven was Col. Shimon Levinson, a security officer in the Prime Minister’s office. In 1991 he was found to have been spying for the Soviet Union and sentenced to 12 years in jail.
Yossi Melman, a journalist and commentator on security affairs, told DW that Israel holds far fewer secret prisoners today than in the past. Still, he doubted the method of using utter secrecy to cloak the latest cases.
“These are Israeli citizens. You don’t think Israelis have to know who is in their jails?” he said. “You don’t have to publish everything on him, but the minimum has to come out. [The government should] say someone was arrested, that he is suspected of something, that he is in prison, and has a certain sentence, and that his family is aware.”
Author Daniella Cheslow, Jerusalem
Editor Rob Mudge
© 2013 Deutsche Welle