Israeli officials believe Russia-held woman became ‘hostage’ in tit-for-tat move
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Israeli officials believe Russia-held woman became ‘hostage’ in tit-for-tat move

Naama Issachar, sentenced to 7.5 years for marijuana found in bag on Moscow stopover, had her detention conditions worsened after Israel okayed extradition of Russian hacker to US

Israeli-American woman Naama Issachar, 26, was sentenced to 7.5 years in Russia over alleged drug smuggling (Courtesy)
Israeli-American woman Naama Issachar, 26, was sentenced to 7.5 years in Russia over alleged drug smuggling (Courtesy)

The detention conditions of an Israeli woman arrested in Russia for marijuana possession and jailed for 7.5 years on Friday for drug smuggling were worsened shortly after Israel’s Supreme Court approved the extradition of a Russian hacker to the United States — strengthening the prevailing assessment in Jerusalem that her trial was a tit-for-tat move by Moscow.

Naama Issachar, 26, was arrested six months ago after a reported 10 grams of marijuana were found in her suitcase during a stopover in Moscow on her way to Israel. Issachar was 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 to Tel Aviv.

Her family has said Issachar, who also holds American citizenship, is being held hostage by Russia as Moscow presses Israel to free a Russian hacker who faces extradition to the US. Russia has reportedly offered a prisoner swap between the two, which Israel has turned down.

Aleksey Burkov, an IT specialist who was arrested in Israel in 2015 at the request of Interpol, 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.

Russian hacker Aleksey Burkov. (Screenshot/Kan 11)

Speaking to RT (Russia Today), a Russian television network funded by the government and widely considered its propaganda outlet, Burkov said last week that he “asked [Issachar’s relatives] to talk to Israeli diplomats but as far as I understand, they assured the family there will be no swap.”

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 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.”

On Sunday, the Kan public broadcaster reported that a short while after Burkov’s extradition was green-lighted, 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 prevailing 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 Russian President Vladimir 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.

Naama Issachar and her mom Yaffa in a post to Issachar’s Instagram page in July 2018.

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 is a reference to a famous case in France that has become a symbol for injustice and anti-Semitism, in which the 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.

Yedioth also published a series of letters written by Issachar and by her mother during the detention, detailing the story of her arrest at the airport, her optimism gradually turning into despair, learning to adapt to life with other inmates, the worsening conditions, the shock upon learning she was being accused of smuggling, and asking her mother after Friday’s sentencing to promise her that everything would be done to free her.

Prime Minister Benjamin 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 sentence on Friday came despite a “personal” plea by Netanyahu to Putin for leniency.

On Friday night, Yaffa Issachar told Channel 12 of the sentencing: “We told her we would appeal. She was shaking like a leaf… By any standard the punishment does not fit what she did.”

She then issued a public call to Netanyahu: “I beg you. You have to get her out of here. She’s living in terrible conditions. There’s barbed wire and hounds and she’s falling asleep to the sound of iron doors banging.”

Issachar’s lawyer also told Channel 12 that never before in Russia’s history had a person been arrested for drug smuggling without having even entered the country.

“Naama did not pass through border control. Her luggage was in the hands of the airline and she would have received it only upon landing in Tel Aviv,” Alexander Tayus said. “Legally she did not commit any crime in Russia. It may be that the decision is simply because she is Israeli and comes from political considerations rather than legal ones.”

Justice Minister Amir Ohana told Channel 13 on Saturday that Issachar’s punishment was “without a shadow of a doubt disproportionate.” He said he would review in the coming days whether to extradite Burkov.

On Friday, a senior Israeli official told Hebrew-language media that Russia had offered several times in recent months to free Issachar if Israel agreed to release Burkov.

The official said the deal never went ahead because Israel had already begun the official extradition process, and 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 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.

Naama Issachar has been detained in or near Moscow since April. (Naama Issachar/Instagram via JTA)

“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, 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 despite the fact she never intended to enter Russia.

AFP contributed to this report

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