Hundreds of people attended a protest in Tel Aviv on Saturday evening, calling for the release of an Israeli woman imprisoned in Russia on drug charges, as a simultaneous rally was held in New York outside the Russian consulate.
Naama Issachar, 26, was sentenced last week to seven-and-a-half years in prison by a Russian court for alleged drug smuggling. She has been detained in Russia since April when some 10 grams of marijuana were found in her bag during a stopover in Moscow while flying to Israel from India.
“We are excited about the support and solidarity that people are showing,” Issachar’s friend Tzlil told Channel 12 news. “If Naama saw this she would be very angry with us, because she is a very shy person — you can see it with her smile. But we do what is necessary. This event must not be removed from consciousness — the people of Israel know how to make noise when it is needed, when there is harm to human life and injustice.”
Tzlil said the protest was to raise awareness of Issachar’s cause and a call for intervention from anyone who can help.
“We are not political people — we just want Naama to come home. It’s a call for anyone who can help, no matter if they are politicians or businessmen, Russian, American or Israeli. We call on anyone who can help get Naama out of prison.”
Issachar’s heavy sentence, which Israeli officials have condemned as disproportionate, has been linked to the pending extradition of Aleksey Burkov, who was arrested in Israel in 2015 at the request of Interpol.
Burkov, an IT specialist, 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.
Russia is also seeking his extradition and has repeatedly pressed Israel to return him.
Israel reportedly turned down requests to release Burkov to Russia in exchange for Issachar, who also has American citizenship.
Issachar’s family met Friday with Justice Minister Amir Ohana, asking him to hold off on extraditing Burkov.
Boaz Ben Zur, a lawyer representing Issachar, told reporters after the meeting that Ohana agreed to consider the request and that the family would appeal to the Supreme Court, which in August green-lighted the extradition, if needed.
Ohana did not comment after the meeting, but said Thursday he expected the extradition to go ahead in the near future.
He also rejected tying Issachar’s fate to Burkov, warning of grave consequences if Israel agreed to a swap.
“I suggest not creating a very dangerous precedent here, that each time there is a country that wants to have someone extradited, it captures an Israeli and makes a scapegoat of them,” Ohana told the Kan public broadcaster.
During a meeting Friday in Jerusalem with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed Issachar’s case and Burkov’s extradition, according to Hebrew media reports.
The reports did not say how Pompeo responded.
Netanyahu sent a formal request on Tuesday to Russian President Vladimir Putin asking that Issachar be pardoned. Moscow has said the Russian leader would consider the request.
Issachar’s family 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 Foreign Ministry official told the Ynet news site on Friday that Israel hopes Issachar will be released by the time of Putin’s planned visit to Jerusalem early next year.
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.
Burkov, in an interview with Channel 13, denied any such involvement.