Netanyahu asks Putin to pardon Israeli backpacker jailed on drug charges
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Netanyahu asks Putin to pardon Israeli backpacker jailed on drug charges

Official request seeks release of Naama Issachar, who is believed to be held in tit-for-tat over detained Russian hacker wanted by US

Naama Issachar, sentenced to 7.5 years in Russia over alleged drug smuggling, in an undated photo (Courtesy)
Naama Issachar, sentenced to 7.5 years in Russia over alleged drug smuggling, in an undated photo (Courtesy)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday formally requested that Russia pardon an Israeli woman hit with a tough prison sentence last week for drug offenses.

The pardon request for Naama Issachar, which was submitted on behalf of Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, was sent to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister’s Office said.

Issachar, 26, was sentenced 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 is wildly disproportionate.

“We thank the prime minister for his determination as a statesman and his compassion as a person,” the Issachar family said in response to Netanyahu’s request.

They also expressed hope that the close ties between Netanyahu and Putin, who have met numerous times in recent years, could help secure Issachar’s release “in the coming days, after she was indicted for a crime she didn’t commit.”

A spokesman for the Kremlin said Monday that Putin will consider Israel’s requests to issue a pardon for Issachar once it is submitted through the proper channels.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on April 4, 2019. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/AFP)

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 from Israel to the US, despite Moscow’s requests that he be extradited back 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 having it pass through Russian border control and therefore is not a smuggler. She would not have had access to the illicit substance before arriving back in Israel.

Earlier Tuesday, the Israel Prisons Service said Aleksey Burkov, the Russian hacker, was placed under tighter observation at the detention facility where he is being held.

Burkov, an IT specialist who was arrested in Israel in 2015 at the request of Interpol, is wanted in the US on embezzlement charges in a massive credit card scheme that saw him allegedly steal millions of dollars from American consumers.

Israel reportedly turned down requests to release Burkov to Russia in exchange for Issachar, who also has American citizenship.

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

Israeli officials’ growing conviction that Issachar was being held as part of a pressure campaign to bring about the release of Burkov has given rise to the question of why Moscow would be so interested in his fate.

His extradition to the US was approved by Israel’s Supreme Court in August, but Russia, too, has made an extradition request, and Moscow officials have repeatedly pressed Israel to send him home.

Recent days have seen reports in the Hebrew media that Israeli officials believe Burkov may be tied to Russian intelligence. 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.

But Burkov, in an interview with Channel 13, denied any such involvement.

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