President Reuven Rivlin wrote a letter to the president of Peru, Martín Vizcarra, asking him to grant clemency to a young Israeli woman currently jailed in the country over allegations of attempted drug smuggling.
Hodaya Monsonego, 24, a resident of Hof Ashkelon, was arrested approximately six months ago in Lima for her alleged involvement in an attempt to smuggle a large amount of cocaine from Peru to Israel.
In a report aired Saturday evening on Channel 12, her family said that Monsonego is mentally impaired and that she was likely exploited by a friend and the friend’s relative, who, according to the report, was the mastermind of the operation.
In his letter, Rivlin wrote that Monsonego suffers from “medical issues and has been diagnosed with limited cognitive ability” which impairs her judgement, according to a statement sent out by the president’s office. Rivlin stressed that the young woman has no previous criminal record and that it is “reasonable to believe that her unique condition…led her to be involved in the alleged matter unintentionally.”
The president requested that the authorities take into account her “fragile condition,” adding that Monsonego speaks only Hebrew, which has made it difficult to communicate with her local lawyers.
“Taking into account these severe humanitarian circumstances, we are deeply concerned Hodaya’s mental and physical safety, especially in light of her prolonged detention and distance from her family,” Rivlin wrote in his letter. “Under these unique circumstances, I would kindly appeal to your mercy and compassion with a request for your personal intervention to grant Ms. Hodaya Monsonego a pardon.”
According to the family, the saga began when Monsonego’s friend, identified by her first name Smadar, invited her on a trip abroad and paid for her ticket. Smadar and Monsonego are friends from school.
Her siblings, interviewed on Channel 12, said Monsonego was happy and excited to be going on the trip and that at first did not suspect anything was amiss. Monsonego’s brother Ahiya told the TV channel that he spoke to Smadar before the trip and that she explained that she was taking a trip to Madrid with her sister and her sister’s kids and indicated that Monsonego could perhaps help out with the children whose ages were not specified.
The siblings said Monsonego communicated with them daily from Madrid and sent them pictures and selfies from the city.
Monsonego’s sister Tehila said events took a turn when suddenly after a week and a half in Madrid, Hodaya told her they were flying to Montana. Tehila said she asked why they were headed there but didn’t receive a clear answer. After about a day, Monsonego could not be reached, her sister recalled.
Monsonego in fact was never in Montana, though she thought that is where she was headed, according to the report. From Madrid, Monsonego, her friend Smadar and her nephews flew to Lima where they stayed in a local hostel for a few days before making their way back to the airport, ostensibly to head back home to Israel.
According to the report, the two adult women and the two children traveled with luggage that appeared to be newly bought. The local police, which according to the report was trailing them from the moment they arrived in Peru, swooped in at the airport and arrested them after finding a large amount of cocaine in the luggage. Monsonego and Smadar were detained and the children were sent home to their parents in Israel.
Monsonego’s siblings said the news came as shock and that for the first week after her arrest, they were unaware of the charges against her.
The siblings spoke of a young woman who was easily impressionable and was often taken advantage of by others due to a cognitive disability.
In a letter sent to authorities in Peru, the welfare department of the Hof Ashkelon Regional Council wrote that Monsonego “has almost no mental abilities,” and can be easily influenced by those who show her affection and attention. “Because of her borderline personality [sic] and a deep need for affection, she can be easily manipulated by other people and not understanding [sic] were [sic] she is getting in [sic].”
“She’s 24, but she’s not really 24,” explained her sister Tehila. “We have to imagine that right now, in jail, sits a 12-year-old girl. Her mental capacity is that of a 12-13-year-old girl.”
According to the Channel 12 report, the person behind the smuggling operation is Yoni Mellul, Smadar’s former brother-in-law. According to the indictment against him, Mellul approached Smadar and asked her to fly to Peru to bring back some suitcases. He suggested she bring a friend and even fly with his children, to avoid raising suspicion. Mellul bankrolled the whole trip and directed the operation.
Smadar was to fly back with the suitcases, in which some 20 kilograms of cocaine were hidden.
Mellul denied the charges against him. According to documents seen by Channel 12, Smadar had traveled to Peru several times in recent years, including one trip with Mellul.
Meanwhile, Monsonego’s family has mounted a social media campaign in Israel to raise awareness about their sister’s situation, raise funds, and pressure Israeli authorities to secure her release.
Her siblings told Channel 12 the funds are needed to pay for basic necessities for Hodaya such as food, her mattress, medical check-ups, and psychiatrist visits.
They said the case of Israeli-American backpacker Naama Issachar, which they had followed closely, had given them hope. Issachar was freed from prison in Russia late last month after being granted a pardon by Russian President Vladimir Putin amid intense diplomatic efforts headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Issachar, 27, was sentenced by Russia to 7.5 years in prison after nearly 10 grams of marijuana were found in her luggage during a layover in a Moscow airport last April. She has denied smuggling drugs, noting she had not sought to enter Russia during the layover on her way to Israel from India, and had no access to her luggage during her brief stay in the Russian airport. She served 10 months before being released.
“When I saw that Naama was back home, it did me some good. I saw what my country was capable of doing to win back her release,” said Monsonego’s brother, Maor.
“We want her back home. I just want to hug my sister,” he said.