Speculation rife over identity of Israel's prisoner 'Mr X'

Information blackout over inmate held in notorious Wing 15, built for Yitzhak Rabin's killer.

TEL AVIV // A mysterious arrest carried out recently by Israel's security services has renewed condemnation from human rights groups about the country's treatment of prisoners and its possible infringement of press freedoms. A report last week on the website of Israel's biggest newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, said that a so-called "Mr X" is being held in complete seclusion at the maximum-security Ayalon prison, and his identity is being kept so closely under wraps that it is not even known to his prison guards or fellow inmates.

The report cited an unidentified official at Israel's penitentiary service as saying: "I don't know of any other inmate who is being held in such harsh conditions of isolation and separation … it's scary that in the year 2010, a man can be imprisoned in Israel without even us knowing who he is." In a possible indication of the severity of the offences of "Mr X", the report said he is being held in the same cell and wing that were constructed specifically for Yigal Amir, the right-wing extremist who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's former prime minister, in 1995.

The report was the only one to appear in the Israeli press about the detention, and within hours after it was published it vanished from the newspaper's website because of what some rights activists said may be a blanket gag order forbidding all domestic media coverage of the case. Nevertheless, its short-lasting appearance set off a wave of speculation about the identity of the man and the reasons he was arrested - with some bloggers speculating that he may have been an operative of Mossad who was suspected of espionage.

The report also spurred protests by rights groups, which accused Israel of violating prisoner rights and of attempting to silence media outlets and demanded that it reveal the prisoner's identity and his alleged crimes. Dan Yakir, the chief legal counsel with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, sent a letter to the country's attorney general and demanded that the "blackout be eliminated" on the arrest.

Mr Yakir, whose letter has yet to receive a response, said: "It is alarming that there is a prisoner being held incommunicado and we know nothing about him. This case raises worrying questions both about the rights of suspects as well as about the freedom of the press." According to the report in Yediot Ahronot, which was distributed by various blogs before disappearing, the man is being held in the central Israeli prison's Wing 15, the entrance of which is protected by double iron doors and has only a single cell. The report said: "No one speaks with him, sees him, visits him or even knows he is in jail."

The detention of "Mr X" is just the latest in a series of high-profile cases in which Israeli citizens were secretly arrested and held by the country's security services for days or weeks before they were charged, without any details being made public. Israel's criminal procedure laws allow for a person to be detained by a court order for periods of up to 30 days before facing formal charges, and in special cases the detention is permitted to last for up to 75 days or even longer.

Cases involving espionage tend to be the most shrouded in secrecy. In one of the more prominent such cases in Israel's history, Marcus Klingberg, a Polish-born top Israeli scientist, was imprisoned for 20 years in 1983 for giving the Soviets a vast amount of information about Israel's chemical and biological weapons programmes, with his incarceration kept a secret for a decade. More recently, Israel held Ameer Makhoul, a leading Israeli-Palestinian human rights activist, incommunicado for nearly two weeks after imposing a media gag order on his detention for several days. His attorneys said that Mr Makhoul, who was charged with spying for Hizbollah, was denied a lawyer, kept in a small isolation cell, deprived of sleep and food, and shackled tightly to a small chair that was bolted to the floor.

In a related case that was also under a gag order, another Israeli-Palestinian activist, Omar Said, was also arrested, denied a lawyer for more than two weeks and then charged with transferring information to Hizbollah. The blanket gag orders that were initially imposed on Israeli media coverage of those arrests proved partly ineffective after details from the investigations were reported by foreign media and by bloggers in Israel and abroad.