Netanyahu vows to return backpacker jailed by Russia

Campaigning prime minister says he’s ‘no magician’ but will ensure release of Naama Issachar, who was sentenced to over seven years for minor drug offense

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday vowed to secure the release of an Israeli-American backpacker who is serving a seven-year-plus prison sentence in Russia for a minor drug offense.

“I am not a magician, but one thing I assure you. I will bring Naama Issachar home,” Netanyahu told supporters at a rally in Haifa where he was campaigning ahead of a leadership primary within his Likud party.

Issachar, who’s been held in Russia since April, was arrested over a small amount of marijuana found in her luggage during a stopover in Moscow.

She is due to face an appeal hearing against her sentence later this week. Last week a Russian court delayed the appeal hearing so that Issachar, 26, could attend the court session rather than participate only via video link.

Issachar was sentenced in October to seven and a half years in prison for drug smuggling after authorities in April found nine grams of marijuana in her luggage before she boarded a connecting flight on her way from India to Israel. She had not planned to enter Russia during the stopover.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on December 15, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

The amount is within the legal limit for personal use in Israel. The minor offense generally gets a slap on the wrist in Russia, and Israelis have alleged that the long sentence was politically motivated.

Issachar’s family is hoping that diplomatic efforts may see her swiftly released. At the appeal hearing last week her mother, Yaffa, said she was aware of contact between Israeli and Russian officials but that she hadn’t been given specific information over the matter.

In an open letter to Netanyahu on Tuesday, Yaffa said she hoped her daughter would be home in time to light the first candle for the Jewish festival of Hannukah on Sunday evening.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, September 12, 2019 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Earlier this month Netanyahu discussed Issachar’s case with Russian President Vladimir Putin when the two spoke about security issues in the Middle East. Putin is slated to visit Israel in January.

The phone call was the second in three weeks between the two leaders in which Netanyahu called on Putin to pardon the young Israeli-American.

The conversation came on the same day that Foreign Minister Israel Katz met with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Rome and raised the issue of Issachar.

Moscow has said the Russian leader would consider the request.

Russia had tried exchanging Issachar for Russian hacker Aleksey Burkov, but its advances were turned down by Israeli officials who said they feared setting a precedent.

Israel extradited Burkov to the United States, where he is wanted on embezzlement charges for a credit card scheme that allegedly stole millions of dollars from American consumers.

Alexsey Burkov, a Russian hacker wanted by the United States, attends an appeals hearing against his pending extradition, at the High Court of Justice in Jerusalem, November 3, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In November Yaffa Issachar asked Putin to pardon her daughter in a letter delivered through the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III.

She wrote that she is pleading “with the heartache of a mother to pardon my daughter and return her to her family,” according to Maariv.

In Israel next month, Putin is expected to join French President Emmanuel Macron at events to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Jerusalem, in what is expected to be the largest-ever gathering focused on combating anti-Semitism.

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