Israeli-American backpacker Naama Issachar freed from Russian prison
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Israeli-American backpacker Naama Issachar freed from Russian prison

With her mother and Netanyahu waiting, prison service says woman jailed on drug charges released after 10 months and intense diplomatic efforts

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)

An Israeli-American woman jailed in Russia on drug charges has been released from prison after some 10 months, the Russian prison service said Thursday morning.

“Due to the presidential decree on pardoning, Naama Issachar has been freed from prison,” the prison service said in a statement.

Naama Issachar, 27, was sentenced by Russia to 7.5 years in prison after nearly 10 grams of marijuana were found in her luggage during a layover in a Moscow airport in April. She has denied smuggling drugs, noting she had not sought to enter Russia during the layover on her way to Israel from India, and had no access to her luggage during her brief stay in the Russian airport.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Moscow on Thursday morning to welcome Issachar upon her release, which comes weeks before national elections in Israel. She is expected to travel back to Israel on the prime minister’s plane.

“It wasn’t an easy night, I slept for maybe an hour,” said Yaffa Issachar, Naama’s mother. “I’m excited. I imagined it many times, she did too. But we never imagined the prime minister would come and bring her.

“It is over, thanks to all the Israeli nation,” she said.

A Federal Penitentiary Service officer stands near the gate of a prison colony where Israeli citizen Naama Issachar jailed on drug charges has been serving her sentence in Novoye Grishino, Moscow region, Russia, January 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

Russian President Vladimir Putin pardoned Issachar on Wednesday, with the Kremlin saying a presidential decree pardoning her on “humanitarian principles” was effective immediately.

Netanyahu subsequently thanked “my friend” Putin for pardoning her and said he was looking forward to meeting the Russian leader on Thursday.

Foreign Minister Israel Katz also hailed Issachar’s release.

“I, like all Israeli residents, are delighted by the joy of the mother Yaffa and the Issachar family on Naama’s return home,” Katz said in a statement.

Earlier, an Israeli official said Issachar’s release was the result of a Russian goodwill gesture toward the United States, stressing that Israel did not give Moscow anything in return.

“There was no deal with Russia. Naama’s release was done as a gesture by President [Vladimir] Putin to the US,” a senior official in an inter-ministerial committee dealing with the case told reporters in Netanyahu’s entourage.

Jerusalem’s Old City and Temple Mount from the Russian Orthodox Church on the Mount of Olives (undated) (©DEIAHL, Jerusalem)

According to Hebrew media reports, Russia had asked Israel to transfer a piece of Russian Orthodox Church property near the Old City of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre to the Kremlin, as a goodwill gesture ahead of Issachar’s release.

Russia has been demanding Israel hand over rights to Alexander’s Courtyard for over a decade, but Justice Ministry officials along with two senior Likud lawmakers who are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Yuli Edelstein and Ze’ev Elkin, have opposed the measure.

Last week, a Russian national whose extradition from Israel to the US was believed to be linked to Isaachar’s fate, pleaded guilty to running a website that helped people commit more than $20 million in credit card fraud. Aleksey Burkov, 29, of St. Petersburg, Russia, entered the plea to charges including fraud and money laundering in a federal court in Virginia.

The government dealt with Issachar’s case not only because of the state’s responsibility toward all its citizens, but also out of a desire to solve a problem “that could hurt the sensitive relations between Russia and Israel,” the official added, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin cut the ribbon to unveil the Memorial Candle monument in Jerusalem on January 23, 2020, to commemorate the people of Leningrad during the Second World War Nazi siege on the city. (Amit Shabi/Pool/AFP)

Securing Issachar’s release could boost Netanyahu’s popularity ahead of the March 2 elections, the third in less than a year after the prime minister failed to form a government in the previous two rounds of voting. The announcement Tuesday by the Prime Minister’s Office of the trip to Russia came less than an hour after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit filed an indictment against Netanyahu for charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust with the Jerusalem District Court.

Putin was in Israel last Thursday for a one-day visit to attend the World Holocaust Forum, which this year marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, smile as Yaffa Issachar, second left, the mother of Naama Issachar, who is imprisoned in Russia, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, in Jerusalem on January 23, 2020, ahead of the World Holocaust Forum. (Heidi Levine/Pool/AFP)

During his visit, he met Yaffa Issachar and said in a press statement after the meeting that “everything will be all right.” He said that it was clear to him from meeting Yaffa Issachar that her daughter comes from a “good, decent family.”

Issachar had become a cause célèbre in Israel, where her arrest and sentence were largely viewed as politically motivated.

Raphael Ahren and agencies contributed to this report.

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