Zygier in limbo as DFAT in dark

NINE days ago, Foreign Minister Bob Carr's office sent written questions to his department seeking advice for an ABC television interview Carr would record the following evening on the "Prisoner X" case.

NINE days ago, Foreign Minister Bob Carr's office sent written questions to his department seeking advice for an ABC television interview Carr would record the following evening on the "Prisoner X" case.

The department responded with a carefully written briefing that Carr duly delivered to Foreign Correspondent and which his spokesman repeated in essence to Fairfax Media on Wednesday morning.

The government, Carr said, did not know that 34-year-old Melbourne man Ben Zygier had been imprisoned by Israeli authorities until after he had died and his family asked for his body to be repatriated. The interview was part of Foreign Correspondent's explosive report on Tuesday that claimed that Zygier was the notorious "Prisoner X" in solitary confinement at Israel's maximum-security Ayalon prison. He had committed suicide, the program said, by hanging himself in his reportedly "suicide-proof" cell.

"On my advice," Carr said, "the Australian government was not informed of his detention by his family or anyone else." On Wednesday afternoon, Carr's office began calling journalists to retract the statement. On Thursday morning, Carr admitted to a Senate estimates hearing that some officials in his department had learnt from ASIO on February 24, 2010, that Zygier had been jailed because of "serious offences under Israeli national security legislation" - nearly 10 months before his death.

How did his department get its pre-interview briefing so wrong? The answer goes to the heart of the arcane relationships between Australia's intelligence services, the bureaucracy and their political masters. To say the "Australian government" knew nothing of Zygier's detention was meaningless. Granted, plenty of people in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade - at least the consular section that Carr says he consulted - did not know. Yet ASIO, which had already been watching Zygier on suspicion he was working for Israeli external security agency Mossad, knew via its liaison in the Tel Aviv embassy that he had been arrested and jailed, and appears to have told a select few people in DFAT.

Whether or not then minister Stephen Smith was told is unclear - though this may be answered by an investigation Carr has ordered into DFAT's handling of the affair.

The acting ambassador in the Tel Aviv embassy in early 2010, Nicoli Maning-Campbell, was not informed, according to DFAT boss Peter Varghese's testimony to the Senate estimates hearing on Thursday. Muddying the issue further, sources have told Fairfax Media that ASIO did, however, inform the new permanent ambassador, Andrea Faulkner, who took up her post the following month and who is still in the job today.

What the messy information flow meant for Ben Zygier is that he did not receive any consular assistance from Australian officials. This was compounded by the soured relations between ASIO and Israeli domestic intelligence service Shin Bet - the only channels of communication between the two governments on the affair - over Israel's use of fraudulent Australian passports in the assassination of a Palestinian militant leader the previous month.

Instead, the arms of the government that actually knew about the case "relied upon" the Israeli assurances that Zygier was being well-treated and had legal counsel, Carr told the Senate hearing. No Australian consular official attempted to visit him in jail. One of the country's top international law experts, the Australian National University's Don Rothwell, said Israel was in clear breach of international consular access conventions by failing to formally tell Australia - government to government - that it had arrested and jailed Zygier.

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