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‘Maybe there are questions to ask’: Rafael Epstein on Ben Zygier, aka Prisoner X

Read Wednesday, 26 Mar 2014
Journalist and *Prisoner X* author Rafael Epstein.
Journalist and *Prisoner X* author Rafael Epstein.

Ben Zygier, an Australian-Israeli citizen, took his own life in Israel’s maximum security, ‘suicide proof’ Ayalon Prison in 2010. In this extract of his recent Lunchbox/Soapbox talk on the Zygier espionage saga, Rafael Epstein explains that there were serious gaps in Australia’s handling of the case –both before and after his death.

I knew Ben Zygier as a young boy in primary school, when he was in my care in a Jewish youth movement called Netzer. He was a kind, and not overly gregarious boy, who grew up to be one of the more charming teenagers, hanging out in another youth movement called Hashomer Hatzair. There were just a few hundred of us in Zionist youth movements, university and high school students, in this small tribe-within-the-tribe of the Jewish community. We were committed idealists, reveling in self-empowerment and the allure of believing that we could really change the world.

Most of us did not go on to live in Israel, but Ben Zygier did. Two years into his law degree at Monash University, he decided he was going to become an Israeli citizen and do more than the bare minimum of service on Israel’s army. So Ben Zygier went to Israel, fought in its Army, and then joined its feared intelligence agency Mossad. While undercover for Israel, he worked inside a European company to try and penetrate Iran’s military and its nuclear program. He did this using Australian passports, one of which he’d used to get a visa at the Italian consulate in Melbourne. Later, on leave from his Mossad work, Ben Zygier returned to Melbourne in 2009, to once again study at Monash University.

It is what happened to Ben Zygier from this year onwards, and how he was treated in Australia and Israel, that are my core concerns in Prisoner X.

Concerned by Zygier’s misuse of his passport, he was followed in 2009 by Australian intelligence and his phone calls were monitored. One of the agents who tracked him on the streets of Melbourne later revealed his identity as Mossad agent to Australian journalist Jason Koutsoukis. At the time, Ben Zygier told friends he thought he was being followed, but they dismissed his concerns.

As this was unfolding, I was told that Ben Zygier was talking to people at Monash, and this talk is what led to his downfall. I was told that he had let slip details of his work in Europe targeting Iran. He’d spoken with an Iranian businessman who was on the same campus. This Iranian knew that what he’d heard was valuable information and it was passed back to Tehran. Because Israel has good surveillance of communications in Iran, Mossad eventually found out that Ben had been saying too much to the wrong person, while studying in Melbourne.

So by the end of 2009, he was being monitored by intelligence agencies from three countries: Australia, Israel and Iran.

Mossad was concerned enough by Ben’s loose talk in Melbourne, that they asked him to return to Israel. He was arrested within a few weeks of his return at the start of 2010. Just two days later, the world was told of a spectacular Mossad assassination in Dubai. This is important because it should have given Australian authorities great cause to be discussing Ben’s case. He’d had nothing to do with the assassination in Dubai, but when the Hamas leader was killed in the Gulf state, the Israelis used three fake Australian passports among others.

Curiously, this audacious operation involved stealing the identity of three Melbourne Jews, who had gone to live in Israel, just as Ben had done. This misuse of Australian passports set up 2010 as a year of tension, with Australia’s national security establishment furious with Israel. Mossad’s man in Canberra was expelled and the ALP government confirmed for the first time that Israel had previously misused Australian passports. ASIO Chief David Irvine was sent to Israel to try and get some answers.

This should have been when where two disparate cases intersected. Despite ASIO’s position at the centre of this standoff over Dubai, and despite their concerns about Ben Zygier’s misuse of his passport, the agency does not appear to have pushed for Ben’s case to be discussed by our elected representatives. This is more than strange at a time when Israel’s misuse of passports in Dubai was “an abuse of our national sovereignty,” according to then Foreign Minister Stephen Smith. As far as we know, Ben’s illegal use of his Australian passports – and his surveillance by Australian agencies – was never passed on to any minister other than then Attorney General Robert McClelland. Even more curiously, the A-G never raised it with his cabinet colleagues.

Israel's maximum security Ayalon Prison, where Ben Zygier died in custody.
Israel’s maximum security Ayalon Prison, where Ben Zygier died in custody.

Even if it is not the case that considerable Australian resources were used to track Ben Zygier in Melbourne in 2009 – and I am told this was done – when he was arrested in Israel, someone should have told then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd or his successor, Julia Gillard. That this didn’t happen was odd – and that’s an understatement. In Opposition, Julie Bishop believed these were important concerns. “Interestingly, this was at the very time that the Australian Government was in a lather about Australian passports being used by Israeli intelligence agencies. So somebody must have thought maybe there was a connection, maybe there are questions to ask.

Those who were told of Ben Zygier’s arrest include our current ambassadors to China and Indonesia – who were Canberra bureaucrats at the time – and Dennis Richardson, currently the top public servant in the Defence Department. For various reasons, including officials’ lack of ‘recollection’, relevant ministers say they weren’t informed. And that’s despite paperwork detailing his arrest being sent to offices of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister.

I tried and failed, formally and informally, to interview various politicians and bureaucrats about this curious lack of joining-the-dots at the very apex of Australia’s political and security establishment. I never received a reply anywhere close to an answer. Australians deserve better than the retort from Bob Carr when he was pressed about these strange facts: “Listen pal, I wasn’t in the Parliament at that time, I can’t shed any more light on it!” We only know about Canberra’s curious lack of curiosity because of an internal DFAT inquiry, instigated by then Foreign Minister Carr. He’d unknowingly misled the ABC, saying the government only learnt of Ben Zygier’s incarceration at the time of his death.

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Resting place: Ben Zygier's tombstone.
Resting place: Ben Zygier’s tombstone.

Ben Zygier’s family never requested consular assistance, and any Australian discussion of his fate may not have changed the sad end to his life. But there were politicians and bureaucrats with access to Australia‘s most closely held secrets, and we don’t know if they asked the questions they should have. There is too much that the public just don’t know, and are simply not told.

This is an edited excerpt from Rafael Epstein’s recent Lunchbox/Soapbox talk, of which we’ll post a video on this website soon. Epstein is the author of Prisoner X, published by Melbourne University Press. He hosts Drive on 774 ABC Melbourne.

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