Family of backpacker jailed in Russia asked to lie low ahead of Putin visit

Family of backpacker jailed in Russia asked to lie low ahead of Putin visit

Israeli officials hope Putin will announce pardon for Naama Issachar during one-day trip to Israel, urge relatives not to give interviews to avoid missteps, Israeli TV reports

Israeli-American Naama Issachar, jailed for drug smuggling, attends her appeal hearing at the Moscow Regional Court on December 19, 2019. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP)
Israeli-American Naama Issachar, jailed for drug smuggling, attends her appeal hearing at the Moscow Regional Court on December 19, 2019. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP)

The family of Naama Issachar, an Israeli-American backpacker imprisoned in Russia on drug charges, has been asked to lie low and refrain from giving press interviews ahead of a visit to Israel by Russian President Vladimir Putin this coming week, Israeli TV reported on Saturday.

The request came from senior Israeli officials who are hoping Putin will announce a pardon for Issachar and fear any missteps, according to Israel’s Channel 12.

Issachar, 27, has been held in Russia since April when some 10 grams of cannabis were found in her luggage during a layover in Moscow. She was sentenced to seven and a half years for drug smuggling, a charge she denied, noting she had not sought to enter Russia during the layover on her way back to Israel from India.

Putin is set to arrive in Israel on Thursday for a one-day visit and will hold private meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin.

Issachar’s family has been very vocal about her imprisonment, mounting a campaign for her release and enlisting the help of activists. Earlier this month, Yaffa Issachar, Naama’s mother, appealed to Rivlin in an open letter on Facebook, asking him not to host Putin and threatened to physically block the Russian leader’s path to stop him from entering the President’s Residence. The family has since said it was not planning on any provocations during Putin’s visit to the country.

US Israeli backpacker Naama Issachar’s mother Yaffa Issachar, left, and sister Liad Goldberg wait for Issachar’s appeal hearing in a courtroom in Moscow, Russia, December 19, 2019. (Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr./AP)

On Friday, Netanyahu said that there was a “real willingness” on Putin’s part to help resolve the situation.

“I spoke yesterday with President Putin about Naama [Issachar]. I felt that he showed a real willingness to find a solution,” Netanyahu said in a short statement, reiterating that he was “much more optimistic.”

“I can’t give details, but we will continue to do all we can to bring Naama home, and until then will continue to support her and her family,” he said.

Netanyahu’s comments came a day after his call with the Russian leader and after Russian media reported that Putin was considering pardoning Issachar ahead of his visit to Israel. Israeli media speculated that Putin would announce her release during his visit, but would not bring her to Israel.

Channel 12 said on Saturday that Issachar “would not likely be on the plane with Putin.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting on drafting constitutional changes at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, January 16, 2020. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

The TV channel reported that in exchange for the pardon, Israel has been asked to provide some sort of “backing” for the Russian narrative surrounding World War II and speculated that Netanyahu would make a remark in his speech.

A senior Israeli official said that “what Israel would provide would not her hurt [Issachar], but is important to Putin,” according to the report.

The TV channel said Issachar has been updated on recent developments by her lawyer but that a request by her mother, currently in Russia, to visit her was denied by Russian authorities.

The Russian media this past week indicated that progress was being made. Russian government sources told Kommersant that Putin was mulling releasing Issachar, who is serving prison on a drug-smuggling charge that Israel claims was trumped up, as a humanitarian gesture.

The sources expressed regret that Israel had extradited a Russian hacker to the United States, rather than trading him for Issachar.

Aleksey Burkov, a Russian hacker wanted by the United States, attends an appeals hearing against his pending extradition, at the High Court of Justice in Jerusalem, November 3, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Moscow had sought Aleksey Burkov in exchange for Issachar, according to Israeli officials, but Israel in November rejected the demand and sent the hacker to the United States to face trial on embezzlement charges. Reports in Hebrew-language media have said Israeli officials believe Burkov may be connected to Russian intelligence. Burkov, in an interview with Channel 13, denied any such involvement.

According to a report by the Russian TASS news agency on Thursday, Burkov, who initially denied the charges against him, will plead guilty to some charges in a hearing on January 23 in Virginia.

Netanyahu spoke earlier Thursday with Putin and came away from the phone call feeling optimistic about securing her release, his office said in a statement.

“The conversation was warm and to the point, and strengthened the prime minister’s optimism that the matter of Naama’s release is advancing toward resolution,” the Prime Minister’s Office said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting in Moscow on April 4, 2019. (Koby Gideon/GPO)

On Wednesday, Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel flew to Moscow for meetings with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ivanov and Putin’s Middle East adviser, Mikhail Bogdanov.

During the meetings Gamliel also raised the subject of Issachar’s release.

“I met with my friend the Russian deputy foreign minister, and asked him to recommend to President Putin pardoning Naama Issachar for humanitarian reasons,” Gamliel wrote on her Facebook account.

“The correct way to return Naama is by way of a request for a good humanitarian gesture as part of our deep friendship with Russia,” Gamliel wrote.

הבוקר המראתי לרוסיה לסדרת פגישות עבודה עם אנשי ממשל בנושא קידום מהלך חנינה לנעמה יששכר.נפגשתי עם ידידי, סגן שר החוץ של…

פורסם על ידי ‏גילה גמליאל – Gila Gamliel‏ ב- יום רביעי, 15 בינואר 2020

On Tuesday Ivanov said that there was no prisoner exchange between Israel and Russia under consideration.

“As far as I know, an exchange option is not being looked at,” Ivanov said, according to the TASS news agency.

Last Friday, Israel released two Syrian prisoners in what was seen as a gesture toward Putin.

Issachar’s case has become a cause célèbre in Israel. Netanyahu, who has touted close ties with Moscow, promised during a campaign event in December to spring Issachar from Russian prison, and recently sent a personal letter of support to Issachar that was delivered to her in prison.

A Russian court last month rejected an appeal against Issachar’s conviction. Her mother said she would file another appeal with a higher-level court and also turn to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

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