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On Tuesday evening I went to see Rafael Epstein speak about his book Prisoner X – the ‘true’ story behind the intriguing but ultimately tragic story of Ben Zyiger: son, soldier, spy. I used inverted commas around true because Rafael himself went to length to discuss the difficulty in checking the veracity of information in the world of espionage. Epstein is an engaging, confident, and charismatic public speaker and his talk was the best author talk I’ve ever been to in terms of pace, method of delivery, and level of background information given to ensure that the entire audience can follow what he is saying.
Epstein began by talking about his avid involvement with the Zionist Youth Movement (ZYM) in Melbourne and that he met Ben Zygier there. Entertainingly he said that at 17 his life at school was in shades of grey but the ZYM brought technicolour into his life and became his main focus. Epstein went to efforts to point out that even though he was heavily involved with the ZYM he is an accomplished and learned journalist of high esteem. He gave himself as an example that the ZYM is not something to fear in terms of turning out people of divided loyalty.
According to Epstein, Ben Zygier was an Australian-Israeli citizen who grew up in Melbourne. He went to Israel through the ZYM for 12 months and was more earnest than his peers. He returned to Melbourne for 2 years of a law degree before heading back to Israel and conscription for two years into the army. During that time many of his friends died in a helicopter accident that left him with psychological distress. Afterwards he returned to Melbourne and finished his law degree, worked for one year at a law firm before returning to Israel to work for a prominent law firm. At this time he was recruited by Mossad and received regular training. His first assignment was to Milan with a focus on gathering information about Iran. Importantly, he travelled to Italy on his Australian passport.
Some important life events for Zygier are that: he married an Israeli woman; some friends died in a car crash; he attempted suicide. Finally he took one year of study leave and returned to Melbourne with his family to undertake a postgraduate business degree. In that time he began talking with an Iranian business-man about his activities for Mossad. The business-man told the Iranian government. Following that ASIO was monitoring him for performing Mossad work using an Australian passport that he replaced annually, Mossad was monitoring him in case he was a security risk and the Iranian intelligence service was monitoring him as well. He was recalled to Israel for a two week trip for questioning and never returned.
He was imprisoned in Ayalon Prison, Ramla, Israel. His wife broke up with him and the next day he died in custody in 2010, reportedly by hanging himself in a maximum-security cell. The security cameras did not work in his cell and he used a bed-sheet to hang himself from bars in the bathroom. Zygier was treated cruelly in prison and subject to gross negligence. He had no prospect of a trial by peers and his wife left him. He had suffered the losses of friends in two tragic accidents. He didn’t know when he would be released.
Prisoner X was a placeholder name for him while he was being held in strict secrecy for unspecified crimes. An Australian Broadcasting Corporation (Foreign Correspondent) 10 month investigation identified Zygier in February 2013. Eventually the Israeli government acknowledged that a prisoner held under a pseudonym died in custody and confirmed the prisoner’s identity as Ben Zygier. The Australian government never discussed Zygier even though they were advised of his arrest. Foreign minister Bob Carr said when interviewed:
The Australian government was advised through intelligence channels on December 16, 2010 of this individual’s death on the previous day. At no stage during his detention did the Australian government receive any request from the individual or his family to extend consular support.
Epstein’s main concerns are that ASIO didn’t bring up Ben’s case with the Australian government and Israel locks up people in secret. Israeli parliamentarians have the right to go anywhere in Israel but none visited the prison in Ayalon.