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Israel sheds light on death of suspected spy

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JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israel on Wednesday admitted for the first time that it held an Israeli with dual citizenship under a false name for security reasons, and that he died in prison more than two years ago -- details that shed new light on a case that has strained relations with its close ally Australia and raised questions about its secretive Mossad agency.

The admission confirmed key elements of an Australian TV report about the case, but also left unanswered major questions about the case, including the man's identity, why he was incarcerated, if he was a citizen of Australia and whether he worked for the Mossad.

A report by Australia's national broadcaster, ABC, identified the man as Ben Zygier. The report said he was a Jewish-Australian immigrant to Israel who was working for the Mossad when he was placed in a maximum-security prison for an unspecified crime in 2010. The report said he died in December of that year, apparently by suicide.

Israel, which refused to acknowledge the Australian report for nearly 24 hours, began lifting the veil of secrecy on the case on Wednesday.

Early in the day, it allowed Israeli media to report on the Australian news report. Then, late at night, a court order lifted parts of a series of gag orders dating back to March 2010, and confirmed elements of the report.

Wednesday's court order, emailed to reporters by Israel's Justice Ministry, confirmed that an Israeli man who held dual citizenship in an undisclosed country died in custody in 2010.

Identifying the man only as the Hebrew equivalent of John Doe, the court order said the prisoner's family was notified immediately after he was detained. It said he was imprisoned under a court order, that the prisoner's full rights were retained and named three Israeli lawyers who represented him.

The court order said that after the prisoner was found dead in his cell, a judge ordered an investigation into his death. About six weeks ago, the court statement said, the investigation concluded that he committed suicide. However, a judge has now asked the state to check for possible negligence.

In another curious wrinkle in the case, Israeli TV reported that the prisoner, identified by Australian media as Ben Zygier, had worked as a clerk in the international business department of one of Israel's most prestigious law firms, Herzog Fox & Neeman. The firm is partially owned by Israel's Justice Minister, Yaakov Neeman.

When asked in parliament about the Australian TV report on Tuesday, Neeman said he knew nothing of the case but said any allegations, if true, should be investigated.

Australian legislators demanded answers Wednesday about the suspicious death, and the government ordered a review of the case.

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said a review would be conducted of his department's handling of the prisoner.

According to Australian media, Zygier used the name Ben Allen in his Australian passport. He was also known as Ben Alon.

A spokesman for Carr said the review was not meant "to suggest anything untoward has happened, but given that there's an interest in the case, let's have the review."

Carr also revealed that some Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials knew in 2010 that Allen was detained, contradicting an earlier statement that the department only became aware after he died.

Among the lawmakers demanding clarifications was shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, who told ABC that she wanted to know why details of the case were being censored in Israel. She said she would raise the issue with the Israeli Embassy.

Information about the case emerged briefly in June 2010, when the Israeli news site Ynet reported on the existence of a prisoner -- identified only as Prisoner X -- whose crimes were unknown. The report was mysteriously removed from the site shortly after it was posted, apparently under pressure from Israel's military censor. The censor has authority to block or delete reports deemed threatening to national security.

Ynet then reported on Dec. 27, 2010, that a prisoner had committed suicide while in solitary confinement two weeks earlier. That report was also quickly removed.

The Israeli censor's office declined comment.

The ABC reported that Zygier moved from Australia to Israel in 2000 and had worked for the Mossad. It reported that his incarceration was top secret, but did not say why he had been arrested.

It said he hanged himself in a cell that had been specially designed for Yigal Amir, the Jewish ultranationalist who in 1995 assassinated then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Australia's foreign affairs department would not comment on what it described as the ABC's "speculation" on Allen's links to the Mossad.

Israeli TV speculated that Zygier was imprisoned after committing some kind of act of treason.

Israeli Channel 10 TV reported that in 2009, Australian intelligence officers interrogated Zygier when he was in Australia, questioning him about trips to Iran, Lebanon and Syria.

The TV report alleged that the matter was leaked to an Australian reporter, who phoned Zygier and questioned him about his alleged Mossad links. He reportedly denied the allegations. The TV report said some time later, he was put in jail in Israel, and six months later he was found dead in his cell.

In Israel, media were prevented from reporting many details of the Zygier case because of a court-imposed gag order.

According to the ABC report, the Australian migrated to Israel in 2000, was 34, was married to an Israeli woman and was the father of two young children.

A death notice published online from December 2010 announced the funeral for Ben Zygier. He is listed as the son of Geoffrey Zygier, the executive director of the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation Commission, an Australian Jewish organization based in the southern city of Melbourne that combats anti-Semitism. He declined to comment when contacted Wednesday.

This is not the first alleged case of Israeli espionage involving an Australian passport. In May 2010, Australia ordered the expulsion of an Israeli diplomat after investigators concluded Israel was responsible for forging four Australian passports used by those responsible for the 2010 killing of a Hamas operative in Dubai.

At the time, Australia's then-foreign minister Stephen Smith said Israel had previously forged other Australian travel documents. He did not elaborate, but said the 2010 transgression breached "confidential undertakings" between the two countries that have stood for several years.

The affair caused strains in an otherwise very close relationship between the two countries.

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McGuirk reported from Canberra, Australia.

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