Russian President Vladimir Putin will consider Israel’s requests to issue a pardon for Israeli Naama Issachar once they are submitted through the proper channels, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday, as a Russian court granted her mother visitation rights.
Peskov told RT (Russia Today), a Russian television network funded by the government and widely considered its propaganda outlet, that Moscow was aware of a request by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for Issachar to be pardoned, and that Putin would examine it once it was conveyed through the diplomatic pipeline. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has sent a similar appeal to Putin, though Peskov did not mention it.
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. Jerusalem has said the sentence was wildly disproportionate.
Her mother Yaffa Issachar told Ynet after meeting her daughter that she was appreciative of the support and media attention to her case in Israel but noted that “I’m still here.”
“She says 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,” Yaffa said. “She said ‘I’m tired.’ She repeated that. ‘I’m tired, I’m exhausted.'”
She added that Naama had asked for books on yoga and spirituality as this was helping her deal with her circumstances.
Earlier Yaffa had told reporters outside a Moscow court that she would tell Naama “that the prime minister, president and justice minister are trying to help her.”
The family is appealing her sentence. Her lawyer formally submitted the notification of an appeal on Monday, and will present arguments later in the week.
The prevailing assessment in Jerusalem is that the trial of 26-year-old Issachar was politically motivated and a tit-for-tat move by Moscow after Israel’s Supreme Court approved the extradition of a Russian hacker to the United States. The hacker has yet to be handed over to the US.
Israeli officials have condemned the sentence as unreasonable and excessive, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he is “doing everything” to free Issachar.
Yaffa Issachar said the sentencing was “very difficult” for Naama, who was shaking during the proceedings.
“I know she’s confused, and I want to explain everything to her, so she knows where we stand. It has been tense… I hope that I can calm her fears,” she said.
“The messages from back home are reason to hope, but I’ve been here a few months already and I know how things operate here,” she added.
Issachar also said it was her daughter’s Hebrew birthday.
“I haven’t seen Naama since the trial. Today is her Hebrew birthday,” she said. “I really want to strengthen her and tell her I love her.”
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.”
On Sunday 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 was arrested in April while 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 from Moscow to Tel Aviv.
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.
Her family has said Issachar, who also holds US 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.
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.”
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. Channel 13 news on Sunday also reported that this was the prevailing assessment in Israel, though it did not provide a source for the claim. It said Burkov could be tied to Russia’s efforts to influence the American election process.
Burkov, in an interview with Channel 13, denied any such involvement. “It’s all a conspiracy,” he said. “I have nothing to do with it. I’m not a spy. I didn’t interfere in US elections, Israeli authorities know this.
“I’ve never been in touch with the Russian government or intelligence services,” he added. “I have nothing to do with them, I never worked for them and I had no personal ties to them.”
Asked why Russia appeared so intent to secure his return, Burkov answered that “Russians never leave Russians behind, and that’s why they’re fighting for me. I want to believe Israel doesn’t leave its citizens behind either.”
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 may not have originally been arrested as a bargaining chip, it’s possible that she had become one later.
In August she 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 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.
Israeli diplomatic officials reportedly told their counterparts in Moscow that it was impossible to stop Burkov’s extradition since Israel’s Supreme Court had already approved the move. However Justice Minister Amir Ohana has not entirely ruled out such action, saying on the weekend that a decision would be made in the coming days.
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.