'Prisoner X’ Case Exposes Limits to Civil Liberties
The case of Ben Zygier, the Australian-Israeli citizen who committed suicide in a maximum-security prison, has made headlines around the world. Long before the story of 'Prisoner X' came to light in an Australian television program, though, flagship NIF grantee the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) had been working to get the government's gag order lifted on the case.
YNet originally broke the story in May 2010 with a report that a prisoner was being held in complete isolation at Ayalon Prison and that not even his jailers knew his name. The report was taken down from the website. Three days later, ACRI intervened for the first time, when legal adviser (and NIF Law Fellow alum) Dan Yakir wrote to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein: "It goes without saying that a situation in which a prisoner or detainee is held in isolation from the outside world, and certainly for any length of time, is extremely dangerous." He further noted that undisclosed detentions and secret trials contradicted the basic tenets of a democratic country.
Despite being in a supposedly suicide-proof cell, Ben Zygier killed himself on December 15, 2010. YNet posted an article saying that an inmate at the Ayalon Prison had hung himself, but the story was quickly suppressed. Upon hearing the news, ACRI filed a motion with the district court to lift, or at least dilute, the gag order. When the district court dismissed the motion, ACRI approached the Supreme Court. In light of the security information they received, the judges recommended that ACRI rescind their appeal.
This month, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) identified Prisoner X as Mr. Zygier, an Australian-Israeli citizen who was reportedly a member of the Mossad, Israel's secret intelligence service. The Israeli media then received permission to publish reports on the affair based on foreign sources. ACRI wrote to Shai Nitzan, the Deputy Attorney-General, requesting that the details of the arrest and the death of Mr. Zygier be published. The Central District Court has now permitted the publication of all the legal proceedings it conducted in relation to ACRI, and the Supreme Court has done the same.
This case highlights the importance of ACRI's behind- the-scenes work to protect civil liberties in Israel. According to Yakir: "Even in cases where there is a justification for imposing a gag order and conducting a trial in-camera, there is no accepting secret detentions and secret trials in a democratic country. The courts must not serve as rubber stamps for requests by the security agencies. They must exercise independent judgment, defend the public's right to know and enable minimal public oversight… Unfortunately, this isn't how the courts acted in this case." Despite the tragedy, there is a hope that this case will prove to be a watershed, and that there will be greater transparency regarding similar cases in the future.
Read more about the case, and ACRI's critical involvement, in Haaretz.