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Israel

Israel confirms existence of mysterious imprisoned spy

Israel has admitted for the first time that it held an Israeli with dual citizenship who committed suicide while in prison two years ago. The case has raised the issue of censorship in the country.

Israel's admission Wednesday confirmed key parts of a report about the case by Australian broadcaster ABC, though the prisoner's identity and reason for incarceration remain unconfirmed.

According to ABC's Tuesday report, a Jewish-Australian man named Ben Zygier, who had immigrated to Israel, was working for the country's Mossad intelligence service when he was placed in a maximum-security prison for an unspecified crime in 2010. The man, known as Prisoner X, was found dead in his cell in December of that year.

After remaining silent for nearly 24 hours, Israel's justice ministry released a statement about the case.

"The Israel Prisons Service held a prisoner who was an Israeli citizen and also held foreign citizenship," the statement read. "For security reasons the man was held under a false identity although his family was immediately informed of his arrest."

The justice ministry also confirmed that the prisoner was found to have committed suicide.

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said a review of the case would be undertaken of his department's handling of the prisoner. Carr also revealed that some Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials knew in 2010 that the prisoner was detained, contradicting his earlier statement that the department only became aware after he died.

Media blackout

The story of Prisoner X first was first reported in June 2010, when Israel's Ynet news website briefly ran an article on a prisoner being held in top secret conditions whose identity and alleged crime were not known even by his jailers.

The story was quickly taken down, apparently under pressure from Israel's military censor, and a complete media blackout was imposed. The censor has the authority to block or delete reports deemed threatening to national security.

Earlier Wednesday, the Israeli government allowed local media to report on ABC's story. Then, late at night, a court order lifted parts of gag orders on the case dating back to 2010.

Israel's left-leaning newspaper Haaretz reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the country's top editors and asked them to cooperate by withholding publication of information about the case that was "very embarrassing to a certain government agency."

The editor of Haaretz, Aluf Benn, wrote that Israel's security establishment "find it hard to come to terms with the concept of a free media operating in a democratic state, and they try to recruit the press to work with them, offering journalists a combination of confidential information and the threat of arrest."

Violating a gag order is a serious offense under Israeli law and is punishable by imprisonment.

dr/av (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)