'Not a traitor'

What happened to Prisoner X?

A new film, premiering at the Jerusalem Film Festival, seeks to shed light on Australian–Israeli Mossad agent Ben Zygier. The Israeli–Australian production revisits the tale a decade after it was exposed, but does it reveal anything?

An image from the 'Prisoner X' film about the life of Ben Zygier. Photo: Arik Weiss/Medalia Productions
An image from the 'Prisoner X' film about the life of Ben Zygier. Photo: Arik Weiss/Medalia Productions

(With Times of Israel) – The question of the true story behind the downfall of Prisoner X – Australian–Israeli Mossad agent Ben Zygier – rattled Israel. But few concrete answers ever arose.

After news broke that Zygier had been secretly imprisoned and then took his own life while behind bars in 2010, contradictory rumours and reports of his activities reverberated around the world. Did he out a Hezbollah double agent? Leak information to Australia? Or Dubai? Did he actually kill himself, or was he murdered in prison?

A new documentary from Israeli Hilla Medalia and Australian Amos Roberts, which premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival last month and will air on ABC later this year, seeks to shed some light on the explosive story.

In interviews with friends, journalists, his lawyer and through re-created testimony from an anonymous Mossad operative, Prisoner X explores how Zygier evolved from a young idealistic Zionist growing up in Melbourne to a young father of two accused of treason and driven to suicide in solitary confinement.

In 2013, Foreign Correspondent aired an exposé on ABC titled Prisoner X – The Australian Connection, explaining that guards at the most secure prison in Israel didn’t know who the prisoner was or what he had done, just that he was in one of the most secure cells ever to be built, specially designed for Yigal Amir, the assassin of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

At the time, a prison service officer said, “It is simply a person without a name and without an identity who is placed in complete and absolute isolation from the outside world. We don’t know if he gets visits, or if anyone even knows he’s even in jail. There is confidentiality surrounding the detainee in every respect.”

When speculation began circulating about who was being held in the infamous prison, one of the most comprehensive suppression orders conceivable was put into place.

The Foreign Correspondent exposé ultimately revealed his identity and that he was Australian.

According to the ABC, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened an emergency conference of media leaders, during which his Mossad chief urged journalists to leave the story alone. It didn’t work and to this day, the main question remains, what did Zygier do and how did he manage to commit suicide in a purpose-built cell that was supposedly suicide-proof?

The new exposé Prisoner X tells a dynamic story for those unfamiliar with the plot, but provides few new details or theories about the life and death of Zygier.

At times vague, the documentary is also quietly devastating, tracing the life of a young man with so much promise, which ended in so much tragedy.

Amid the many theories, the film does appear to reach some conclusions, including that Zygier took his own life, and was not killed; that whatever crime he was charged with was likely due to a mistake, rather than intentional betrayal; and that Israeli authorities mistreated and abandoned a mentally unstable Zygier, leading to his wholly preventable death.

“I can tell you – without of course getting into the details – that Ben was very far from the boundary that I set for myself of those I would not represent,” said Zygier’s lawyer, Moshe Mazur, in the film.

“He was not a traitor.”

Australian journalist Rafael Epstein, who knew Zygier as a child and wrote a 2014 book about the case, suggested that the narrative that emerged was about a story that’s “murky”.

“It’s not of strategic interest to Israel. It provides a simple reason for why Ben should be in jail. It just didn’t ring true,” he said. “It’s a good story for Mossad because it also gives nothing away about one of Israel’s most important espionage areas, which is Iran.”

Ultimately, more than a story about espionage gone wrong, Prisoner X shows the state using and abandoning a young idealist, throwing him behind bars without telling a soul and burying the story alongside him.

“When you see the whole picture, it is perhaps the most unnecessary death that you can think about in these circumstances,” said Mazur.

The rumours that the Mossad had killed Zygier were way off base, said Epstein.

“The truth is worse because they just didn’t give a shit about him.”

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