An Israeli-American woman was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison by a Russian court on Friday for alleged drug smuggling, despite a “personal” plea to President Vladimir Putin for leniency from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Foreign Ministry condemned the sentence for Naama Issachar, 26, who has been detained in Moscow for the last six months on suspicion of drug smuggling after a reported 10 grams of marijuana was found in her bag during a stopover in Russia for a connecting flight.
“This is a disproportionately heavy punishment for a young Israeli woman without any criminal past who was on a connecting flight at the airport in Moscow on her way to Israel,” the ministry said in a statement.
“Unfortunately, the Russian authorities have not responded to our entreaties to deal with this case in congruence with the circumstances of her arrest,” it added.
Issachar, who also has dual Israeli-American citizenship, was returning from a trip to India in April and stopped over in Moscow airport to catch a connecting flight to Tel Aviv. As her backpack was moving along a conveyor belt a police sniffer dog identified it as suspicious. Authorities searched the bag and found the marijuana wrapped in plastic, concealed inside a toiletries bag.
The announcement of the sentence came shortly after Netanyahu said he spoke with Putin by phone this week about Issachar and said the sentence being weighed by prosecutors was “disproportionate.”
A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office 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 to these requests.”
The PMO added that the punishment “is disproportionate and does not fit the nature of the offense being attributed to Issachar.”
It said Israel “will continue to make every effort with the Russian authorities in order to bring about Naama Issachar’s release and return her to her family.”
Netanyahu’s office also said there was no possibility of preventing the extradition to the United States of a Russian hacker held in Israel, after reports said Russia had offered to release Issachar in exchange for the Russian national.
Her family said the sentence showed she was being held “hostage” by Russia.
“We heard the sentence. Until now we’ve been dealing with trying to prove there was not attempted drug smuggling but now we understand that this is a larger matter. Naama is being held as a hostage,” the family was quoted saying by Channel 13 news.
“I don’t know how much longer she can hold on,” her mother Yaffa told channel 12 after the sentencing. “I appeal to the prime minister, please help her.”
Earlier Friday, a senior Israeli official told Hebrew media that Russia offered several times in recent months to free Issachar if Israel agrees to release Aleksey Burkov, a Russian IT specialist who was arrested in Israel in 2016 at the request of Interpol.
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.
The official said the deal never went ahead because Israel had already begun the official extradition process, and also didn’t want to anger the US.
Israeli diplomatic officials told their counterparts in Moscow that it was impossible to stop Burkov’s extradition since the Supreme Court had already approved the move.
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, according to a Haaretz report.
Prosecutors say that because Issachar’s bag entered Russian airspace with the drugs inside it, her actions should be considered smuggling.
Russia has harsh laws on recreational drug use and possession of even a small amount for personal use is punishable by a long jail sentence.
According to a Council of Europe report from 2017, Russia has the highest number of people per capita imprisoned for drug crimes in Europe — around a quarter of the prison population.
Foreigners have fallen victim to the laws, often unaware of their severity.
A 19-year-old US tourist was arrested in Saint Petersburg last month and could face up to three years in jail for bringing in marijuana. While she had a US permit for personal medical use, Russia does not recognize these.
In 2016 a British man working at a Russian university was sentenced to three years for buying and possessing hashish. He was released in 2018 and deported.
AFP contributed to this report