Minister: PM to formally ask Putin for release of Israeli jailed in Russia

Yuval Steinitz says prime minister is doing what he can to help Naama Issachar; sister says although she has US citizenship family has not asked Washington to intervene

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will Tuesday submit an official request to Russian President Vladimir Putin for the release of an Israeli woman sentenced by a Moscow court to seven and a half years in prison for drug offenses.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told Kan public radio that the formal request on behalf of jailed 26-year-old Naama Issachar will be made later in the day and follows previous personal appeals to Putin by Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin.

Issachar was sentenced on Friday to seven-and-a-half-years in prison for alleged drug smuggling. She has been held by Russia for six months after 9.6 grams of marijuana were found in her bag during a stopover in Moscow on her way to Israel from India. Jerusalem has said the sentence was wildly disproportionate.

Steinitz, a close confidant of the prime minister, said Netanyahu “is doing what can be done. He isn’t the president of Russia. He is the prime minister of Israel.”

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on May 29, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Netanyahu has met several times in recent years with Putin in Russia.

“We hope personal ties will help as they are helping in the freedom of operation for the air force in the skies over Syria,” Steinitz said referring to arrangements between Israel and Russia concerning military activity in Syria that were implemented in recent years to prevent clashes between the countries’ air forces as they both conduct military operations in Syria.

Steinitz’s remarks came after on Monday a spokesman for the Kremlin said Putin will consider Israel’s requests to issue a pardon for Issachar once it is submitted through the proper channels.

Issachar’s sister, Liad, told Kan on Tuesday that Naama did not know the marijuana was in her luggage and had no intention of bringing drugs back to Israel.

“Naama really didn’t know that the drugs were in her bag,” Liad said. “In the end she admitted to it, but it didn’t happen intentionally. She would not knowingly do something so stupid. Her mistake was that she didn’t clean out the bag.”

Liad explained that while she doubts anybody deliberately concealed the drugs in Naama’s bag, her sister was returning from three months in India where she spent time “with all kinds of people in all kinds of places.”

Although Naama has US citizenship, Liad said the family has not asked Washington for help.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in Sochi, Russia, Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019. (Shamil Zhumatov/Pool Photo via AP)

The Issachar 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 involving the expected extradition of a Russian hacker to the US, despite Moscow’s requests that he be extradited back to Russia.

The Ynet news site reported Monday that Justice Minister Amir Ohana and 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 Issachar.

Burkov is wanted by the US for embezzlement in a credit card fraud scheme. 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.

Aleksey Burkov during a court hearing in Israel (Channel 13 news)

Yisrael Beytneu party MK Yulia Malinovsky said Tuesday that party leader MK Avigdor Liberman, a Russian immigrant and former foreign and defense minister, is also making efforts to secure Issachar’s release.

“There is something to offer the Russians in return for Naama,” told the Kan station.

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.”

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 said 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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