Israel gripped by identity of 'Prisoner X'
By Richard Spencer and Adrian Blomfield
Israel has been gripped by a guessing game over the identity of a mysterious prisoner being held in such secrecy that even his guards do not know his name.
June 21, 2010
The elusive "Mr X" is being held for unspecified crimes and confined in total seclusion within a private wing of the maximum-security Ayalon prison.
No one knew of his existence until the shroud of secrecy was briefly lifted after a story appeared on the website of Israel's leading Hebrew-language newspaper Yediot Ahronot.
Quoting unidentified officials within the Israeli penitentiary service, it disclosed that Mr X was being held in Unit 15, a wing of Ayalon prison that contains a single cell.
He is not though to receive any visitors and his wing is cut off from the rest of the prison by double iron doors. So hermetic are the conditions in which he is held that other prisoners can neither see nor hear him.
"He is simply a person without a name and without an identity who has been placed in total and utter isolation from the outside world," a prison official was quoted as saying.
Within hours, the story had vanished from the newspaper's website, allegedly after Israel's domestic intelligence service won a gagging order banning all media coverage of the case.
The attempt to redraw the veil has had only limited success, however, with the disappearance of the story serving only to whet the interests of human rights activists in Israel, who have now launched a campaign to force the state to unmask Mr X and disclose his crimes.
Dan Yakir, chief legal counsel for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the country's oldest human rights group, said: "There is no information on whether this person has been charged, whether he has been tried or whether he has been convicted."
In a letter to the Israeli attorney general last week which has yet to receive a response, Mr Yakir protested the secrecy surrounding Mr X's detention.
"It is insupportable that, in a democratic country, authorities can arrest people in complete secrecy and disappear them from public view without the public even knowing such an arrest took place," he wrote.
Amid the intrigue and the silence of the domestic press, Mr X's cause has also been taken up by influential Jewish bloggers, most notably Richard Silverstein, a US-based commentator who has played a leading role in forcing Israel to drop gagging orders in recent months.
While there has been little but speculation as to what Mr X may have done, there can be little doubt about the importance attached to him by the state for he is being held in the cell specially built to house Yigal Amir, the Israeli extremist who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, the former prime minister, in 1995.
But one Israeli security expert said that the secrecy suggested espionage rather than terrorism is likely to lie at the heart of the mystery.
In 1983, Marcus Klingberg, a leading Israeli scientist, was jailed for 20 years for passing secrets about the country's biological warfare programme to the Soviets. But it was only after he had been in prison for a decade that Israelis heard for the first time about Klingberg's existence, arrest and conviction.
Mr X is being held in the same prison as Mordechai Vanunu, the whistle-blower who revealed Israeli nuclear secrets before he was lured out of Britain by a Mossad honeytrap in 1986 and jailed for 18 years.
Vanunu was sent back to prison last month for talking to foreigners, in violation of his parole.
Israel's prison service has declined to confirm or deny the existence of Mr X on security grounds.