Russian President Vladimir Putin is considering pardoning an Israeli-American backpacker imprisoned in Russia on drug charges ahead of his visit to Israel next week, according to a Russian media report on Thursday.
The report in the Kommersant daily came hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed optimism over the release of Naama Issachar after speaking by phone with Putin.
Officials in Jerusalem on Thursday also told Channel 13 there had been “progress” in talks with their Russian counterparts on Issachar’s case.
Russian government sources told Kommersant that Putin was mulling releasing Issachar, serving 7.5 years on a drug smuggling charge that Israel claims was trumped up, as a humanitarian gesture.
The sources expressed regret that Israel had extradited a Russian hacker to the United States, rather than trading him for Issachar.
Moscow had sought Aleksey Burkov in exchange for Issachar, according to Israeli officials, but Israel in November rejected the demand and sent the hacker to the United States to face trial on embezzlement charges. Reports in Hebrew-language media have said Israeli officials believe Burkov may be connected to Russian intelligence. Burkov, in an interview with Channel 13, denied any such involvement.
According to a report by the Russian TASS news agency on Thursday, Burkov, who initially denied the charges against him, will plead guilty to some charges in a hearing on January 23 in Virginia.
Netanyahu spoke earlier Thursday with Putin and came away from the phone call feeling optimistic about securing her release, his office said in a statement.
“The conversation was warm and to the point, and strengthened the prime minister’s optimism that the matter of Naama’s release is advancing toward resolution,” the Prime Minister’s Office said.
Issachar, 27, has been held in Russia since April, when some 10 grams of cannabis was found in her luggage during a layover in Moscow. She was sentenced to seven and a half years for drug smuggling, a charge she denied, noting she had not sought to enter Russia during the layover on her way back to Israel from India.
Putin is due for a one-day visit to Israel next week to participate in an international forum on the Holocaust at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and Museum in Jerusalem.
Issachar family says not planning protests
Speaking to the Ynet news site Thursday, before news of Netanyahu’s phone call, Issachar’s mother, Yaffa, said the family was not planning on any provocations during Putin’s visit to the country.
“In the first place I didn’t plan to do that [demonstrations] and I believed that Putin would release her before he arrives,” Yaffa Issachar said, adding that she is “very optimistic.”
She said her approach was to appeal for a pardon rather than try to force the issue with provocative demonstrations.
“The activists supporting Naama do want to do something, but a decision has not been made,” she said. “I hope that Putin will come with an assurance. If he doesn’t release her — I believe he will nonetheless arrive with a message for Israel.”
Yaffa Issachar said that she was trying to arrange to meet with Putin or at least pass him a personal letter while he is in the country.
“He has already had a short message from me, perhaps I need to do it again,” she said, referring to a previous personal letter she sent to Putin about her daughter.
During his time in the country Putin will hold private meetings with President Reuven Rivlin and Netanyahu. His trip to Israel has raised hopes among some for a goodwill gesture of a diplomatic breakthrough in Issachar’s case.
Earlier this month Yaffa Issachar appealed to Rivlin in an open letter on Facebook, asking him not to host Putin and threatened to physically block the Russian leader’s path to stop him from entering the President’s Residence.
Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel flew Wednesday to Moscow for meetings with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ivanov and Putin’s Middle East adviser, Mikhail Bogdanov.
During the meetings Gamliel also raised the subject of Issachar’s release.
“I met with my friend the Russian foreign minister, and asked him to recommend to President Putin pardoning Naama Issachar for humanitarian reasons,” Gamliel wrote on her Facebook account.
“The correct way to return Naama is by way of a request for a good humanitarian gesture as part of our deep friendship with Russia,” Gamliel wrote.
On Tuesday Ivanov said that there was no prisoner exchange between Israel and Russia under consideration.
“As far as I know, an exchange option is not being looked at,” Ivanov said, according to the TASS news agency.
On Friday, Israel released two Syrian prisoners in what was seen as a gesture toward Putin.
Issachar’s case has become a cause célèbre in Israel. Netanyahu, who has touted close ties with Moscow, promised during a campaign event in December to spring Issachar from Russian prison, and recently sent a personal letter of support to Issachar that was delivered to her in prison.
A Russian court last month rejected an appeal against Issachar’s conviction. Her mother said she would file another appeal with a higher-level court and also turn to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.