An Israeli-American woman who was jailed in Russia for 10 months before being released in 2020 has spoken for the first time about her experience, which closely echoes that of detained American basketball star Brittney Griner.
Naama Issachar, who was eventually freed after the personal intervention of Russian President Vladimir Putin, called her detention a “complete game” and said that she had been a political pawn.
“I know what she’s going through,” Issachar told NBC News, days after Griner pleaded guilty to drug possession charges on the second day of her trial in a Russian court in a case that could see her sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.
“I see the videos of her and I’m like, I know that courtroom,” Issachar said in the English-language interview, agreeing with the interviewer that she hoped Griner hears her remarks.
Issachar, then aged 27, was sentenced by Russia in 2019 to 7.5 years in prison after nearly 10 grams of marijuana were found in her luggage during a layover in a Moscow airport.
She denied smuggling drugs, noting she had not sought to enter Russia during the layover on her way to Israel from India, and had no access to her luggage during her brief stay in the Russian airport.
“I was like, where did that come from,” she said in the interview broadcast Wednesday, denying she had deliberately tried to smuggle drugs. “I didn’t know it was in my bag.”
“It’s a bit terrifying because they don’t tell you anything,” she said.
“I find it insane that I was detained for almost a full day without knowing I was detained,” she said.
Issachar said she was held in a cell with up to 40 other women.
“It was loud,” she said. “They don’t provide you with anything besides food. They don’t provide you with toilet paper or feminine hygiene products.”
She said she taught herself Russian and kept a journal in which she said she was “terrified,” but said she was never abused.
Issachar said that when she was put on trial, she was held in the same facility that Griner is thought to be detained in.
“I knew that it made no sense whatsoever,” she said of her trial. “I knew that this was a complete game. I’ve seen that judge many times at that point and I knew that he was being told to say things.”
The backpacker agreed with the interviewer when asked if she believed she was a political pawn. Issachar’s plight was a major issue for Israelis, garnering extensive press coverage, particularly when Putin visited Israel for the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
During that visit, Putin met Issachar’s mother and told her “everything will be all right.” He pardoned her shortly afterward.
Griner, 31, was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport while returning to play basketball in Russia, and police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage.
The Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist pled guilty last week, nearly five months after her arrest in February amid rising tensions between the US and Russia over Ukraine.
Speaking through an interpreter, Griner told the court she had no intention of committing a crime and had acted unintentionally because she had packed for Moscow in a hurry. The trial was then adjourned.
A senior Russian diplomat said that no action could be taken by Moscow on Griner’s case until the trial was over, and her guilty plea could be an effort by her and her advisers to expedite the court proceedings.
Washington hasn’t disclosed its strategy in the case and the US may have little leverage with Moscow because of strong animosity over its actions in Ukraine. The State Department’s designation of Griner as wrongfully detained moves her case under the supervision of its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, effectively the government’s chief hostage negotiator.
Russian media have speculated repeatedly that Griner could be swapped for Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” who is serving a 25-year sentence in the US after being convicted of conspiracy to kill US citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.
Russia has agitated for Bout’s release for years. But the wide discrepancy between Griner’s alleged offense and Bout’s global dealings in deadly weapons could make such a trade unpalatable to Washington.
Others have suggested that Griner could be traded along with Paul Whelan, the former Marine and security director serving 16 years in Russia on an espionage conviction that the US has described as a setup.
Before Issachar was released, Israeli officials reportedly turned down an offer by Moscow to swap her for Russian national Aleksei Burkov, whose website facilitated more than $20 million in credit card fraud. Reports in Hebrew-language media said Israeli officials believed Burkov may be connected to Russian intelligence. Burkov denied any such involvement.