Israel hoping woman jailed in Russia will be freed by Putin visit in January

Foreign Ministry official says imprisonment of Naama Issachar on drug charges casting a ‘dark cloud’ over Jerusalem-Moscow ties

Naama Issachar, sentenced to 7.5 years in Russia over alleged drug smuggling, in an undated photo (Courtesy)
Naama Issachar, sentenced to 7.5 years in Russia over alleged drug smuggling, in an undated photo (Courtesy)

Israel is hoping an Israeli woman imprisoned in Russia for drug offenses will be released by the time of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s planned visit to Jerusalem early next year, a senior Foreign Ministry official was quoted saying Friday.

Naama Issachar, 26, was sentenced last week to seven-and-a-half-years in prison for alleged drug smuggling. She has been detained by Russia for six months after 9.6 grams of marijuana were found in her bag during a stopover in Moscow while flying from India to Israel.

Israel has condemned the sentence as disproportionate and formally requested she be freed.

“We hope the Naama Issachar affair will wrap up in a positive way by the Russian president’s visit to Israel in January and that we’ll see Naama at home,” the Foreign Ministry official told the Ynet news site.

Putin has said he plans to visit Israel in January to take part in a commemoration ceremony marking 75 years since the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, as well as attend the unveiling of a monument honoring Soviet soldiers who fought and fell in the siege of Leningrad.

“At the moment the Naama Issachar affair is a sort of dark cloud above relations between the countries,” the official said. “Our ties with Russia — without hurting the [Issachar] family — are very important and there are very important things on the agenda in the relations like the situation in Syria.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Sochi, Russia, September 12, 2019. (Shamil Zhumatov/Pool Photo via AP)

The official also defended the Foreign Ministry’s handling of the case — “we did everything possible” — and denied it had been contacted by Russia about a possible prisoner swap for a Russian hacker held by Israel.

“At no point did we receive, either at the embassy in Moscow or the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, any reference from the Russian side about the possibility of a deal between Naama and Aleksey Burkov. If this comes up, it’ll be raised in different channels,” the official said.

Burkov, an IT specialist who was arrested in Israel in 2015 at the request of Interpol, is wanted in the US on embezzlement charges in a massive credit card scheme that saw him allegedly steal millions of dollars from American consumers.

Aleksey Burkov during a court hearing in Israel (Channel 13 news)

Israel reportedly turned down requests to release Burkov to Russia in exchange for Issachar, who also has American citizenship.

His extradition to the US was approved by Israel’s Supreme Court in August, but Russia, too, has made an extradition request, and Moscow officials have repeatedly pressed Israel to send him home.

Issachar’s family was to meet Friday with Justice Minister Amir Ohana to discuss her case.

In an interview Thursday, Ohana said he did not know when he would sign the final approval for Burkov’s extradition but said he expected it would be soon. He also warned swapping Burkov for Issachar would have grave  consequences.

“I suggest not creating a very dangerous precedent here, that each time there is a country that wants to have someone extradited, it captures an Israeli and makes a scapegoat of them,” Ohana told Kan public radio.

Justice Minister Amir Ohana attends a conference in Jerusalem on June 27, 2019 (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday sent a formal request to Putin asking that Issachar be pardoned. Moscow has said the Russian leader would consider the request.

Issachar’s family expressed hope that the close ties between Netanyahu and Putin, who have met numerous times in recent years, could help secure Issachar’s release “in the coming days, after she was indicted for a crime she didn’t commit.”

Also Tuesday, the Israel Prisons Service said Burkov was placed under tighter observation at the detention facility where he is being held.

The prisons service said there was no indication other prisoners were planning to harm Burkov or that he was planning on harming himself, stressing that the move was a precautionary measure in light of recent reports on the detainee, according to the Haaretz daily.

Recent days have seen reports in the Hebrew media that Israeli officials believe Burkov may be tied to Russian intelligence. Channel 13 news on Sunday also reported that this was the prevailing assessment in Israel, though it did not provide a source for the claim.

Burkov, in an interview with Channel 13, denied any such involvement.

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