– Australian security officials suspect that Ben Zygier, the spy who died in secret in an Israeli prison cell in 2010, may have been about to disclose information about Israeli intelligence operations, including the use of fraudulent Australian passports, either to the Australian government or to the media before he was arrested.
Sources in Canberra are insistent that the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) was not informed by its Israeli counterparts of the precise nature of the espionage allegations against Mr Zygier. However, it is understood that the former Melbourne law graduate had been in contact with Australian intelligence.
He was in contact the day before he died with human rights lawyer Avigdor Feldman, who said last night: “When I saw him, there was nothing to indicate he was going to commit suicide”, adding that he was rational, focused and without self pity.
Mr Feldman said he was surprised that a man who was being held in a cell like that, a cell which was being monitored 24-hours a day, could manage to commit suicide by hanging himself.
Israeli intelligence informed ASIO of Mr Zygier’s arrest and detention just eight days after authorities in Dubai revealed that suspected Israeli agents had used fraudulent Australian passports in the assassination of a Palestinian militant leader.
The subsequent crisis in Australian-Israeli intelligence relations provided the context in which the Australian diplomats did not seek access to Mr Zygier, who was regarded by Australian security officials as being a potential whistleblower on Israeli intelligence operations.
Foreign Minister Bob Carr and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) on Wednesday revealed that the Australian government first learnt of Mr Zygier’s detention through intelligence channels on February 24th, 2010.
Fairfax Media has been told by security sources that ASIO’s liaison office in Tel Aviv was notified of My Zygier’s detention by the Israeli domestic intelligence agency Shin Bet. It is understood that ASIO promptly notified the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade including the Australian ambassador to Israel, Andrea Faulkner.
An interim report to Senator Carr has reportedly advised that Australian intelligence agencies told DFAT officials about Mr Zygier’s detention shortly after his arrest in February 2010. However, officials were unclear whether then foreign minister Stephen Smith was briefed.
Senator Carr’s office declined to respond when asked about the government’s precise knowledge of Israeli allegations about Mr Zygier.
As no request for consular assistance was made by Mr Zygier or his family, the matter was left to be dealt with through intelligence channels. No consular contact was made with Mr Zygier. It became involved on his death in December 2010.
Mr Zygier’s detention came at an increasingly tense time in Australian-Israeli relations.
On February 16th, 2010, Dubai authorities publicly revealed that suspected Israeli agents had used Western passports in the assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in the United Arab Emirates.
News of the Israeli passport fraud brought a strong reaction from then prime minister Kevin Rudd.
On February 25th, according to a United States diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks, DFAT told the US embassy in Canberra that Australian officials are furious all the way up the chain of command over the incident. Mr Smith called a press conference to announce that he had summoned Israel’s ambassador for an explanation.
On February 27th, three days after the Australian government learned of Mr Zygier’s detention, Fairfax Media reported that at least three Australian-Israeli dual citizens had been under investigation by ASIO in relation to alleged Israeli espionage activity while using Australian passports.
One of those people, not named by Fairfax Media at the time, was Mr Zygier. It was not suggested that the Australians under investigation were linked to the events in Dubai.
Australia’s embassy in Tel Aviv had already complained to Israeli authorities about the passport abuse.
Australian Federal Police investigators subsequently travelled to Israel to pursue the Dubai passport fraud case, and that was followed by a visit to Tel Aviv by ASIO Director-General David Irvine, who met Israeli intelligence chiefs. Mr Irvine subsequently provided a classified report to the government on the issue.
However, security sources have told Fairfax Media that the ASIO chief did not raise the case of Mr Zygier.
Senator Carr yesterday told a Senate hearing that the Australian government sought specific assurances that Mr Zygier’s legal rights would be respected and that the Israeli government responded that the individual would be treated in accordance with his lawful rights as an Israeli citizen. The government relied on these assurances. DFAT yesterday declined to provide details of these exchanges.
On May 24th, 2010, Mr Smith told Federal Parliament that the Australian government was in no doubt that Israel was responsible for the abuse and counterfeiting of Australian passports in Dubai and announced that a senior unnamed Israeli diplomat was being expelled.
The expelled diplomat, given one week to leave Australia was Israeli Embassy counsellor Eli Elkoubi, an officer of the Israeli foreign intelligence service, Mossad. Israeli diplomats complained privately after Mr Elkoubi’s name and status as an intelligence officer was published in The Canberra Times in June 2010. Although the Australian government did not deliberately reveal Mr Elkoubi’s status as a Mossad officer, the Israelis believed the disclosure was a further act of retaliation.
Security sources have told Fairfax Media that the consequent freeze of Australian-Israeli cooperation meant that Zygier’s case wasn’t pursued further by either ASIO or the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade before his death while in secret detention in December 2010.
Israel ambassador Yuval Rotem refused to comment on the issue on Thursday. “When I can, I shall let you know,” Mr Rotem said – Philip Dorling