Military chief Aviv Kohavi on Wednesday defended the Israel Defense Forces’ decision to impose strict censorship on the death of an intelligence officer in military prison, where he was being held after being charged with grave national security offenses, saying it was necessary to protect both the country and the serviceman’s privacy.
Though the military has since lifted portions of the gag order regarding the case, many details can still not be published, including the officer’s identity — despite it being widely shared online — and the specific nature of his alleged crimes, some of which the IDF said he admitted to under questioning.
In a speech, Kohavi said the officer had nearly caused damage to a state secret, but the damage was prevented at the last minute.
“The Military Intelligence officer was my soldier. The Military Intelligence officer was a soldier for all of us, even if he committed a most serious crime. The Military Intelligence officer committed the most serious crimes. He committed them knowingly. He committed them intentionally, for reasons I cannot describe. I am very sorry about this,” Kohavi said.
Earlier this week, the military said the officer had worked alone and had not acted on behalf of a foreign government or for financial gain or out of ideology, but out of unspecified “personal motivations.”
The officer was arrested last year and indicted in September. He had not yet been convicted, but was being held in prison while his attorneys and military prosecutors were negotiating a potential plea deal. On the night of May 16, he was found in serious condition in his cell and was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead a few hours later.
Though an autopsy was performed — with a doctor on behalf of the family present — no official cause of death has yet been determined, according to the IDF, though military officials indicated it appeared to be a suicide. Relatives of the officer have expressed doubt that he committed suicide.
The IDF informed the media of the officer’s death shortly after it happened, but all other details of the case were subjected to two court-issued gag orders — one regarding his death and another regarding his alleged crimes — as well as a military censorship directive.
That led to wild speculation about the case and the circumstances of his death, as well as comparisons to a case from some 10 years ago, the so-called Prisoner X affair, involving a security prisoner who died in custody in what was deemed a suicide. The Prisoner X case was shrouded in secrecy, with even his name — Ben Zygier — being kept from his jailers.
In his speech Wednesday, Kohavi defended the decision to impose gag orders and censorship on the case.
“The officer is not like Prisoner X. He’s not like anything else people are trying to compare him to. The officer was held under his full name from the moment he was arrested. The officer was in contact with his family and in contact with other people around in prison. All that we did was to preserve his privacy and the privacy of his family, out of a desire to be fair. We wanted to protect him. We wanted to protect his family. At the same time, we wanted to protect a secret that he almost damaged. And at the 11th hour, we stopped it,” Kohavi said.
“I am convinced that we will both preserve national security by not allowing this great secret to be harmed and also perform a real investigation and learn what we have to do about this incident,” he added.
According to the IDF, the officer was accused of “knowingly committing a number of actions that seriously harmed national security.”
“The officer cooperated in his interrogation and admitted to most of the acts he was accused of,” the military said.
According to the IDF, the officer had access to a senior military defense attorney who had full access to information regarding the charges against him.
The hearings against him were held behind closed doors, though members of his family were allowed to be present during portions of the trial, the military said.
The IDF said the officer was not in solitary confinement at the time of his death, but was inside a normal cell with other prisoners. He was also imprisoned under his real name, not a pseudonym as in the Prisoner X case. The IDF added that the officer was able to speak to and see his family, as well as friends, while in prison.
Following the soldier’s death, two internal investigations were launched into the matter within the IDF Manpower Directorate, one of them looking at the specific case of the soldier and another looking more generally at the military’s prison system, specifically “prisoners with special characteristics,” the IDF said.