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Originally published Sunday, February 17, 2013 at 5:35 AM

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Israeli premier defends Israel in prisoner scandal

Israel's prime minister on Sunday defended the actions of his country's security forces following a public uproar over the mysterious death of a man who apparently hanged himself while being held secretly in a maximum-security prison.

Associated Press

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JERUSALEM —

Israel's prime minister on Sunday defended the actions of his country's security forces following a public uproar over the mysterious death of a man who apparently hanged himself while being held secretly in a maximum-security prison.

Israel has said little about the case. But Australian media have said the man, identified as Ben Zygier, was an Australian immigrant to Israel who served in the Mossad spy agency at the time of his death in December 2010. Zygier reportedly was imprisoned for unspecified security offenses.

In his first comments on the affair, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he "completely trusts" Israel's security forces and legal system. He said that freedom of expression is important, but Israel faces extraordinary threats and therefore must keep silent on some details of national security affairs like this one.

"We are not like all other countries," Netanyahu told his Cabinet. "We are more threatened, more challenged, and therefore we have to ensure the proper activity of our security forces."

"Allow the security forces to work quietly so we can continue to live securely and safely," he added.

The affair, suppressed by Israeli authorities until Australia's national broadcaster broke the story last week, has shined a rare spotlight on the murky dealings of the Mossad and brought scrutiny on Israel's system of military censorship and gag orders.

Critics have accused the Israeli government of trying to cover up the affair and are demanding a full investigation, fueling a debate about balancing national security and freedom of information in a country that prides itself as a vibrant democracy. Israeli officials have said that while the matter was kept from the public, the prisoner was given legal representation and maintained contact with his family.

The matter also has strained relations with Australia, a close ally of Israel.

Australia's foreign minister, Bob Carr, on Sunday demanded that Israel provide information on the prisoner for an Australian investigation into his death.

"We have asked the Israeli government for a contribution to that report," Carr told reporters in the Australian capital, Canberra. "We want to give them an opportunity to submit to us an explanation of how this tragic death came about."

Carr initially said last week that his Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had been unaware that the prisoner, who also used the names Ben Allen and Ben Alon, had been in Israeli custody until his family asked for his body to be repatriated.

But Carr corrected the record and ordered the investigation on Wednesday after discovering that Australian intelligence officers had alerted some department officials 10 months earlier that the Australia-born Israel resident had been arrested on serious national security charges. Australian media have speculated that Zygier used his Australian passport, under various names, to spy for Israel.

Moshe Cohen, a spokesman for Israel's Justice Ministry, said the ministry would consider this week whether to publish the coroner's report that ruled the prisoner had committed suicide. It will also consider publishing details of a separate probe into possible neglect in the guarding of the prisoner, he said.

"After this case exploded, there was public interest," Cohen said. "Whatever isn't secret we need to publish."

In Israel, criticism is mounting about officials' handling of the affair and the prisoner. Lawmaker Tzachi Hanegbi, head of parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee during the time of the prisoner's detention in 2010, told Israel Radio on Sunday his committee was frequently briefed by Israel's intelligence bodies on matters of national security, but he was never told about the prisoner.

"This needs an explanation," Hanegbi said. "Even embarrassments have always been revealed to the committee."

Avigdor Feldman, a lawyer who met with Zygier shortly before his death, has speculated that the difficult conditions of solitary confinement led the 34-year-old man to take his own life.

Later Sunday, an Israeli parliamentary subcommittee announced it would launch an "intensive probe" into the affair.

The Australian Broadcasting Corp. has reported that Zygier was a Mossad intelligence service agent who hanged himself in a supposedly suicide-proof solitary confinement cell.

The Australian foreign minister at the time of Zygier's death, government lawmaker and former prime minister Kevin Rudd, has refused to say when he became aware of Zygier's arrest and death.

But Rudd urged the government to consider taking action against Israel as it did in 2010 when an Australian investigation concluded that Israel had counterfeited four Australian passports used by a suspected hit squad that murdered a Hamas official in Dubai. In May 2010, Australia expelled a member of Israeli's embassy in retaliation.

"The tradition of this government has to be robust on these matters, even with a country with whom we've had the friendliest of relationships," Rudd told Sky News television.

Australia's Fairfax Media reported last week that Zygier was one of at least three dual Australian-Israeli citizens being investigated by the main Australian spy agency ASIO in early 2010 over suspicions that they were spying for Israel.

The sensational saga has dominated public discourse in Israel since it was first reported by Australian ABC last Tuesday.

Despite a whirlwind of foreign media reports easily accessible on the Internet, Israel maintained a gag order on the case for 24 hours. Late Wednesday, Israel acknowledged parts of the story, saying it had held a dual Israeli citizen under a false name for security reasons, and that he died in prison in 2010 from an apparent suicide.

But Israel has not identified the man, said why he was imprisoned, explained how he committed suicide when he was under 24-hour surveillance or explained why the case was hidden from the public for more than two years.

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McGuirk reported from Canberra, Australia.

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