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Israel defends prisoner program

| Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013, 7:21 p.m.
AFP/Getty Images
Australian newspapers were devoted on February 14, 2013, with the story of Ben Zygier. The man, identified by Australian media as Mossad agent Ben Zygier, known as 'Prisoner X', died in a secret prison near Tel Aviv in 2010 in a case the Israeli government went to extreme lengths to cover up, imposing media gag orders. AFP | Getty Images

JERUSALEM — Israel's prime minister on Sunday backed the actions of his country's security forces amid 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 such as 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.

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