Israeli-American backpacker loses appeal in Russian drug smuggling case

Naama Issachar says she was coerced into signing confession; Netanyahu tells her mother ‘despite the disappointing court decision I am not giving up’

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)

A Russian court on Thursday rejected the appeal of Naama Issachar, a US-Israeli woman who was sentenced to over seven years in prison in the country for a minor drug offense.

Issachar, who has been held in Russia since April, was arrested after a small quantity of marijuana, some 9 grams, was found in her luggage during a layover in Moscow.

The judges discussed the decision for roughly 20 minutes and ruled against the appeal in a one-sentence statement, Channel 12 reported. The rejected appeal means her years-long punishment will be upheld.

Speaking in English, Issachar told the court she not only “had no intention” of bringing drugs into Russia, but stressed that “I had not even passed the customs control” when she was stopped.

After the decision was announced, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he told Issachar’s mother, Yaffa, that “despite the disappointing court decision I am not giving up.”

“I’ll keep doing whatever I can to bring Naama home,” Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu on Tuesday told a rally he would bring Issachar back, but on Wednesday, his spokesperson tried to tamp down the expectations, saying it would take time.

Yaffa Issachar told Israeli media earlier that she believed the prime minister. She and Issachar’s sister broke down in tears after hearing that her appeal was rejected.

“Stay strong,” Yaffa Issachar called out to her daughter after the judges announced the decision.

Lawyers for Issachar are waiting to receive the full decision on rejecting her appeal before deciding on their next steps, Haaretz reported.

Issachar told the appeal hearing that she didn’t know what was written in the confession she had signed because it was in Russian and there was no translator present.

“I didn’t know that I signed a confession,” Issachar said from within a glass booth at the hearing, where she was prevented from meeting with her mother and sister.

The charge d’affaires of Israel’s embassy in Russia, Yaakov Livne, and senior officials from the US consulate also attended the hearing.

Issachar said that when she was asked to sign the confession there was no one to translate the document for her and also suggested that some of it may have been forged.

Issachar’s defense team, led by Russian attorney Vadim Klyuvgant, told the court that Issachar did not buy the drugs that were in her bag and did not know that they were there.

But at the heart of the appeal against her conviction was the claim that because she was on a connecting flight and had no intention of leaving the airport, there was no crime of smuggling, making any offense she committed a minor one.

Klyuvgant argued that there was no indication that a crime was intended and, in addition, asked that the drugs found in her luggage be dismissed as evidence because the search of her bag was carried out without proper authority.

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)

Israeli officials have reportedly speculated that Issachar’s release will come from diplomatic efforts rather than in the courtroom, and will require a pardon that can only be granted by Russian President Valdimir Putin himself.

Earlier this month Netanyahu discussed Issachar’s case with Putin when the two spoke about security issues in the Middle East. Putin is slated to visit Israel in January.

The phone call was the second in three weeks between the two leaders in which Netanyahu called on Putin to pardon the young Israeli-American.

The conversation came on the same day that Foreign Minister Israel Katz met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Rome and raised the issue of Issachar.

Moscow has said the Russian leader would consider the request.

Issachar was sentenced in October to seven and a half years in prison for drug smuggling after authorities in April found nine grams of marijuana in her luggage before she boarded a connecting flight on her way from India to Israel. She had not planned to enter Russia during the layover.

The amount is within the legal limit for personal use in Israel. It generally gets a slap on the wrist in Russia, and Israelis have alleged that the long sentence was politically motivated.

Russia had tried exchanging Issachar for Russian hacker Aleksey Burkov, but its advances were turned down by Israeli officials, who said they feared setting a precedent. Israel then extradited Burkov as scheduled to the United States, where he was wanted on embezzlement charges for a credit card scheme that allegedly stole millions of dollars from American consumers.

On Thursday a Russian delegation arrived in Israel to discuss travel arrangements between the two countries. The Foreign Ministry confirmed the arrival of the delegation for an annual meeting and said that the sides would be discussing “consular matters.”

Israeli officials were expected to push for Issachar’s release and discuss an apparent tightening of restrictions on Israeli travel to the Russia.

Illustrative: Supporters call for the release of Naama Issachar, an Israeli-American woman imprisoned in Russia for drug offenses, at a rally at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on October 19, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

On Wednesday and Thursday, Russia detained dozens of Israeli tourists and businesspeople at a Moscow airport for hours.

The Foreign Ministry said it would seek “clarifications and explanations” regarding the holding of some 60 Israelis, some for as long as six hours, in the Russian capital on Wednesday and Thursday.

According to Hebrew media reports, the passports of the Israelis were confiscated and no reason for their detention was given. Some passengers were interrogated in Russian with no translation offered.

The move was designed to send a “message” to Jerusalem ahead of the arrival of a delegation in Israel to discuss the Kremlin’s frustration over the annual barring of thousands of its citizens from entering the Jewish state, Hebrew media reported on Wednesday night, citing diplomatic sources.

In Israel next month, Putin is expected to join French President Emmanuel Macron at events to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Jerusalem, in what is expected to be the largest-ever gathering focused on combating anti-Semitism.

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