Justice Minister Amir Ohana is expected to okay the extradition of a Russian hacker to the US, despite his potentially central role in securing the release of a young Israeli woman jailed in Russia, according to reports Monday.
The Ynet news site reported that Ohana and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reviewed the case of Aleksey Burkov in recent days, due to the Russians’ apparent keen interest in Burkov being handed over to them, and the understanding in Jerusalem that acquiescing to that request could be key in obtaining freedom for 26-year-old Naama Issachar.
Both the US and Russia have filed extradition requests for Burkov. Among the considerations in moving forward with Burkov’s extradition to the US is the fact that the American request was made long before the Russian one and was far more robust, while Moscow’s appeal was short on many of the details legal officials would expect in such a petition, Ynet reported.
Burkov is wanted by the US for embezzlement in a credit card fraud scheme.
Another factor was Jerusalem and Washington’s close legal cooperation on many issues, including the strong American support for Israel in international legal forums and in stymying efforts to prosecute Israeli officials in the International Criminal Court.
Channel 12 also reported that the extradition was likely to take place. An unnamed Israeli official told the network that there was “a 99 percent chance” that Burkov would be handed over to the Americans.
However he said Israeli believes “There are actions to take with the Russians [to help free Issachar], but these things will be done quietly and through the appropriate channels.”
He added that there have been “quiet contacts” with Russian authorities on the matter, and that these had intensified since Issachar’s sentencing.
Issachar was arrested during a stopover in Russia in April while returning from a trip to India. About 10 grams of marijuana were sniffed out by police dogs as her suitcase was being transferred by airport staff to her connecting flight from Moscow to Tel Aviv.
Jerusalem has said the sentence was wildly disproportionate, and the prevailing assessment is that the trial was politically motivated and a tit-for-tat move by Moscow after Israel’s Supreme Court approved the extradition of Burkov.
Her conditions were worsened considerably shortly after Burkov’s extradition was approved in August, and her sentence appeared far harsher than in previous similar cases in Russia, where individuals caught with drugs were given only fines of several hundred dollars.
Burkov, an IT specialist, was arrested during a vacation in Israel in 2015 at the request of Interpol. He 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.
Moscow’s apparent intense interest in Burkov’s fate has led Israeli officials to believe he may be tied to Russian intelligence, according to multiple reports in Hebrew media. He has denied any connection to espionage or the Russian government.
A senior Israeli official involved in talk with the Russians over Burkov told Haaretz on Monday that he was considered “an asset of the highest importance” in Russia.
On Monday a spokesman for the Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin will consider Israel’s requests to issue a pardon for Issachar once they are submitted through the proper channels.
Also Monday Issachar’s mother Yaffa was allowed to visit her in prison for the first time since her sentencing on Friday, on what she said was her daughter’s Hebrew birthday.
“There was crying, a lot of crying,” she recounted later. “She said she was just tired, exhausted. She’s trying to keep strong. She said ‘Mom, tell me they’re getting me out, that I’m not staying here… It was important to her to say it was frustrating, [that she feels] as though she’s been kidnapped.
“I told her to be strong, that’s she’s admired, that people support her,” she said.
“I told her ‘The prime minister told me to give you strength and minister Ohana told me to give you strength and I know the minister is working on it.’ In truth I don’t know if she believes me.'”
She said Naama was appreciative of the support and media attention to her case in Israel but noted that “I’m still here.”
Yaffa said her daughter feels “she’s in a bubble but she’s decided to turn it into a good thing, to bring good things into that bubble, to have positive thoughts.”
She added that Naama had asked for books on yoga and spirituality as this was helping her deal with her circumstances.
The family is appealing her sentence. Her lawyer formally submitted a notification of appeal on Monday, and will present arguments later in the week. But Israeli officials have said they believe the appeal is a longshot, since Issachar’s jailing seems to be a political matter.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he is “doing everything” to free Issachar, and on Monday evening issued a statement restating his efforts.
On Sunday Rivlin appealed Issachar’s sentencing in a letter to Putin, writing: “Naama made a grave mistake and has admitted her crime, but in the case of a young woman with no criminal record, the severe sentence handed down will have a deeply destructive impact on her life.”
That same day Israel appeared to ratchet up the pressure on Russia, with senior diplomatic source saying that as long as Russia is trying to bring about an exchange deal, “Israelis should think twice about traveling to Russia.”
Issachar doesn’t deny that there were some 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. She would not have had access to the illicit substance before arriving back in Israel.
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.
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