In a deepening diplomatic row with Moscow, Israel is urging its citizens to “think twice” before visiting Russia.
A senior diplomatic source issued the warning on Sunday, as Israel’s leaders stepped up their appeals to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to release an Israeli woman who has been sentenced to seven and a half years in prison after being found with a small quantity of marijuana, in what is regarded by Israel as a wildly excessive punishment.
The woman, Naama Issachar, 26, appears to be a pawn in a Russian effort to compel Israel to accept an exchange deal, in which Israel would free a Russian hacker who is about to be extradited to the United States. Some Israeli officials have privately said Issachar, who also holds American citizenship, is essentially being held “hostage” by the Russians.
For as long as Russia is trying to bring about an exchange deal, “Israelis should think twice about traveling to Russia,” the diplomatic official warned in comments reported by Hebrew media on Sunday afternoon.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry has summoned the Russian ambassador to Israel in recent days to express Jerusalem’s deep dismay at Russia’s handling of the matter, Israel’s Channel 12 news reported Sunday. Israel’s Justice Minister Amir Ohana has publicly branded the jail term handed down to Issachar “not proportionate, not logical, and not appropriate.”
Issachar’s lawyer is to lodge an appeal next week against the jail term, but the prospect of its success is regarded as remote.
Israel has highly sensitive relations with Russia, which is a dominant player in the region. Russia is deeply involved in the Syrian conflict, and played a central role, alongside Iran, in preventing the fall of the Assad regime in the civil war, while Israel is seeking to prevent Iran from deepening its military presence across the northern border.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has cultivated close ties to Putin, flying frequently to meet with him. About a million of Israel’s nine million citizens are immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their descendants.
The warning against traveling to Russia came as Israel’s President, Reuven Rivlin, on Sunday sent a plea for “mercy” to Putin, seeking a pardon for Issachar, who was sentenced on Friday to prison for alleged drug smuggling. Issachar has been held by Moscow for six months after a reported 10 grams of marijuana were found in her bag during a stopover on her way to Israel.
The prevailing assessment in Jerusalem is that Issachar’s trial was politically motivated and a tit-for-tat move by Moscow after Israel’s Supreme Court approved the extradition of Russian hacker Aleksey Burkov to the United States. Issachar was initially detained for possession of drugs, but the charges were subsequently changed to smuggling.
In his letter to Putin on Sunday, Rivlin wrote: “Naama made a grave mistake and has admitted her crime, but in the case of a young woman with no criminal record, the severe sentence handed down will have a deeply destructive impact on her life.”
Issachar was arrested in April while returning from a trip to India. Drugs were sniffed out by police dogs as her suitcase was being transferred by airport staff to her connecting flight from Moscow to Tel Aviv.
Her family has said Issachar, who also holds US citizenship, is being held hostage by Russia as Moscow presses Israel to free Burkov. Russia has reportedly offered a prisoner swap between the two, which Israel has turned down.
An IT specialist who was arrested in Israel in 2015 at the request of Interpol, Burkov has said he contacted the Issachar family through a friend and urged them to appeal to Israeli officials for a prisoner swap. This made no headway due to the August Supreme Court decision approving the extradition, a move that would be difficult to overrule.
Burkov is wanted on embezzlement charges in the United States for a massive credit card scheme that saw him allegedly steal millions of dollars from American consumers. Burkov told RT (Russia Today), a Russian television network funded by the government and widely considered its propaganda outlet, that he was an “average man,” an IT freelancer from St. Petersburg who was on holiday with his girlfriend in Israel “when his life was turned upside down.” He claimed that he was “hijacked” and taken into custody as part of “a standard US scheme.”
Israel’s Justice Minister Ohana said at the weekend that a final decision on Burkov’s extradition would be made “within days.”
On Sunday, the Kan public broadcaster reported that a short while after Burkov’s extradition was green-lighted by the Supreme Court, Issachar’s detention privileges were significantly curtailed — indicating that while she hadn’t originally been arrested as a bargaining chip, she had become one later.
Issachar in August was moved to a prison far from Moscow, while foreign nationals are normally held in a facility in the capital. Her worsened conditions also included a ban on phone calls, family visits, and receiving letters and an end to kosher meals — moves that match crimes far graver than possession of 10 grams of cannabis during a brief stopover at the Moscow airport.
Those details have strengthened the assessment in Israel that Issachar’s arrest wasn’t originally designed to pressure Israel to free Burkov, but she later became a “hostage” in an attempt to do so.
Issachar’s mother, Yaffa, on Sunday published an open letter in Hebrew and Russian addressed to Putin, carried by the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, in which she expressed hope that he would make the decision to release her daughter in the coming days.
In the letter, she wrote that she hoped Putin was not behind the decision to worsen Issachar’s conditions and the “anti-Semitic” move to schedule court hearings on the Jewish festivals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
“Mr. Putin, Naama cannot be a bargaining chip for a person who may or may not have committed security offenses. That is not a fair trade. I am sure you wouldn’t want history to judge you as the leader who stood behind the showcase trial, the Dreyfus affair 2.0.”
That was in reference to a famous case in France that has become a symbol for injustice and anti-Semitism, in which a Jewish captain, Alfred Dreyfus, was wrongly convicted of treason in 1894 and jailed. Only years later, after prosecutors ignored evidence that the culprit was another person and refused to reopen the case, drawing widespread protests, was Dreyfus eventually exonerated in 1906.
Netanyahu on Saturday told Yaffa Issachar that he was “doing everything” to secure her daughter’s release. According to Channel 12 news, Netanyahu called Yaffa and told her to keep her daughter’s spirits up. Meanwhile, Yaffa told the prime minister she believed Naama could be freed “in days” if Israel acted right.
Issachar’s prison sentence on Friday came despite a “personal” plea by Netanyahu to Putin for leniency.
Israeli diplomatic officials told their counterparts in Moscow that it was impossible to stop Burkov’s extradition since Israel’s Supreme Court had already approved the move.
In a statement on Friday in the wake of Issachar’s sentence, Netanyahu’s office said there was no possibility of preventing Burkov’s extradition to the United States.
The statement said Netanyahu was “personally involved in Naama’s case in recent weeks” and asked for her punishment to be lightened and for an improvement in the conditions in which she is being held.
“Netanyahu requested a commuting of the sentence and an easing of the terms of Naama’s detention,” the statement said. “To our regret, the Russian prosecution has not yet accepted… these requests.”
The Prime Minister’s Office added that the punishment “is disproportionate and does not fit the nature of the offense being attributed to Issachar.”
Issachar doesn’t deny that there were 10 grams of marijuana in her bag, but has claimed she had no intention of crossing Russian border control and therefore is not a smuggler.
Russian prosecutors said that because Issachar’s bag entered Russian airspace with the drugs inside it, her actions should be considered smuggling despite the fact she never intended to enter Russia.
On Saturday night Channel 12 aired audio excerpt from Naama’s appeal to the judge prior to the sentencing. In it she said she was “aware that I was irresponsible prior to my flight, that I should have been aware of everything in my baggage. This is why I’ve taken full responsibility for the charge of [drug use]… However I think the charge of [drug smuggling] is unlawful and unjustified.
“My actions show that I never intended to enter the country. And if my words aren’t enough to believe as the prosecutor says: there were seven hours in between my two flights. I made no attempt to leave the transit zone or to claim my luggage… the police took me as I was trying to board my continuing flight home.”
She added: “I understand that this is a matter that is taken very seriously in the Russian Federation, but I beg you to recognize that this was one mistake of someone that had no intention to enter the country and not to interfere with the law.”
AFP contributed to this report