President Reuven Rivlin on Sunday sent an official plea to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, seeking the pardon of an Israeli woman sentenced Friday to 7.5 years in a Russian prison on Friday for alleged drug smuggling.
Naama Issachar has been held by Moscow for six months after a reported 10 grams of marijuana were found in her bag during a stopover on her way to Israel.
The prevailing assessment in Jerusalem is that the trial of 26-year-old Issachar was politically motivated and a tit-for-tat move by Moscow after Israel’s Supreme Court approved the extradition of a Russian hacker to the United States.
Israeli officials have condemned the sentence as disproportionate and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he is “doing everything” to free Issachar.
In his letter to Putin on Sunday, Rivlin wrote: “Naama made a grave mistake and has admitted her crime, but in the case of a young woman with no criminal record, the severe sentence handed down will have a deeply destructive impact on her life.”
He also invoked Russia’s role earlier this year in returning the remains of an Israel Defense Forces soldier killed nearly four decades ago in Lebanon.
“The Jewish People and the State of Israel are grateful for your sensitivity to human life and for your willingness to endanger the lives of your soldiers to locate and return the body of IDF soldier Zachary Baumel. Because of the particular and individual circumstances of Naama Issachar’s case, I am appealing to your mercy and compassion with a request for your personal intervention to grant her an extraordinary pardon.”
Today, I appealed to President Putin of Russia, as a friend of the Jewish People and of the State of Israel, regarding Naama Issachar. Although Naama has made a grave mistake and admitted it, such a long sentence could have a terrible impact on her life. @KremlinRussia_E pic.twitter.com/9NxbPC6RrP
— Reuven Rivlin (@PresidentRuvi) October 13, 2019
Zachary Baumel was a Brooklyn-born IDF soldier whose body had been missing since the 1982 First Lebanon War. In April, Putin helped recover his remains and return them to Israel for burial after 37 years.
Issachar was arrested in April while returning from a trip to India. Drugs were sniffed out by police dogs as her suitcase was being transferred by airport staff to her connecting flight from Moscow to Tel Aviv.
Her family has said Issachar, who also holds US citizenship, is being held hostage by Russia as Moscow presses Israel to free a Russian hacker who faces extradition to the US. Russia has reportedly offered a prisoner swap between the two, which Israel has turned down.
Aleksey Burkov, an IT specialist who was arrested in Israel in 2015 at the request of Interpol, has said he contacted the Issachar family through a friend and urged them to appeal to Israeli officials for a prisoner swap. This made no headway due to the August Supreme Court decision approving the extradition, a move that would be difficult to overrule.
Burkov is wanted on embezzlement charges in the United States for a massive credit card scheme that saw him allegedly steal millions of dollars from American consumers. Burkov told RT (Russia Today), a Russian television network funded by the government and widely considered its propaganda outlet, that he was an “average man,” an IT freelancer from St. Petersburg who was on holiday with his girlfriend in Israel “when his life was turned upside down.” He claimed that he was “hijacked” and taken into custody as part of “a standard US scheme.”
On Sunday, the Kan public broadcaster reported that a short while after Burkov’s extradition was green-lighted, Issachar’s detention privileges were significantly curtailed — indicating that while she hadn’t originally been arrested as a bargaining chip, she had become one later.
Issachar in August was moved to a prison far from Moscow, while foreign nationals are normally held in a facility in the capital. Her worsened conditions also included a ban on phone calls, family visits, and receiving letters and an end to kosher meals — moves that match crimes far graver than possession of 10 grams of cannabis during a brief stopover at the Moscow airport.
Those details have strengthened the assessment in Israel that Issachar’s arrest wasn’t originally designed to pressure Israel to free Burkov, but she later became a “hostage” in an attempt to do so.
Issachar’s mother, Yaffa, on Sunday published an open letter in Hebrew and Russian addressed to Putin, carried by the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, in which she expressed hope that he would make the decision to release her daughter in the coming days.
In the letter, she wrote that she hoped Putin was not behind the decision to worsen Issachar’s conditions and the “anti-Semitic” move to schedule court hearings on the Jewish festivals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
“Mr. Putin, Naama cannot be a bargaining chip for a person who may or may not have committed security offenses. That is not a fair trade. I am sure you wouldn’t want history to judge you as the leader who stood behind the showcase trial, the Dreyfus affair 2.0.”
That was in reference to a famous case in France that has become a symbol for injustice and anti-Semitism, in which a Jewish captain, Alfred Dreyfus, was wrongly convicted of treason in 1894 and jailed. Only years later, after prosecutors ignored evidence that the culprit was another person and refused to reopen the case, drawing widespread protests, was Dreyfus eventually exonerated in 1906.
Netanyahu on Saturday told Yaffa Issachar that he was “doing everything” to secure her daughter’s release. According to Channel 12 news, Netanyahu called Yaffa and told her to keep her daughter’s spirits up. Meanwhile, Yaffa told the prime minister she believed Naama could be freed “in days” if Israel acted right.
Issachar’s sentence on Friday came despite a “personal” plea by Netanyahu to Putin for leniency.
Israeli diplomatic officials told their counterparts in Moscow that it was impossible to stop Burkov’s extradition since Israel’s Supreme Court had already approved the move.
In a statement on Friday in the wake of Issachar’s sentence, Netanyahu’s office said there was no possibility of preventing Burkov’s extradition to the United States.
The statement said Netanyahu was “personally involved in Naama’s case in recent weeks” and asked for her punishment to be lightened and for an improvement in the conditions in which she is being held.
“Netanyahu requested a commuting of the sentence and an easing of the terms of Naama’s detention,” the statement said. “To our regret, the Russian prosecution has not yet accepted… these requests.”
The Prime Minister’s Office added that the punishment “is disproportionate and does not fit the nature of the offense being attributed to Issachar.”
Issachar doesn’t deny that there were 10 grams of marijuana in her bag, but has claimed she had no intention of crossing Russian border control and therefore is not a smuggler, according to a Haaretz report.
Prosecutors say that because Issachar’s bag entered Russian airspace with the drugs inside it, her actions should be considered smuggling despite the fact she never intended to enter Russia.
AFP contributed to this report