A Kremlin spokesman said Monday that Russian President Vladimir Putin would likely discuss the fate of an Israeli-American backpacker jailed in Russia on drug charges during a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week.
Israeli officials have expressed hopes in recent days that Putin may decide to free Naama Issachar, sentenced to 7.5 years in a Russian prison for carrying several grams of marijuana through a Moscow airport, sometime before, during or shortly after his trip to Jerusalem.
“It is highly likely that this topic will be raised during [Putin’s] upcoming contacts with Mr. Netanyahu,” Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, told journalists, according to Russia’s state-run TASS news agency.
When asked if Putin was considering pardoning Issachar, as Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin have requested, Peskov said, “We never announce such matters.”
He said the Kremlin was aware that the issue is a high-profile topic in the Jewish state, according to the report.
Putin is set to arrive in Israel on Thursday for a one-day visit for the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp and will hold private meetings with Netanyahu and Rivlin.
Issachar, 27, has been held in Russia since April when some 10 grams of cannabis were 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 to Israel from India, and had no access to her luggage during her brief stay in the Russian airport.
She has become a cause celebre in Israel, where many see the case as politically motivated.
Issachar’s mother Yaffa met with Netanyahu on Monday to speak about the case, according to the Prime Minister’s Office.
Yaffa Issachar returned to Israel Sunday from a months-long vigil she has been keeping in Moscow to support her daughter.
She delivered a terse statement to the press at the airport in Israel expressing hope for her swift release.
“I left Russia in tears because I left her there. If there are no surprises, I’ll b going back to get her,” she said, adding a plea for activists to lie low during Putin’s visit, amid fears that any missteps might embarrass the Russian leader and scuttle any progress.
She said she thought she would know her daughter’s fate by the end of the week.
Issachar’s family had been very vocal about her imprisonment, mounting a campaign for her release and enlisting the help of activists.
Earlier this month, Yaffa Issachar appealed to Rivlin in an open letter on Facebook, asking him not to host Putin and threatening to physically block the Russian leader’s path to stop him from entering the President’s Residence. The family has since said it was not planning any provocative activities during Putin’s visit to the country.
On Friday, Netanyahu said that there was a “real willingness” on Putin’s part to help resolve the situation.
“I spoke yesterday with President Putin about Naama [Issachar]. I felt that he showed a real willingness to find a solution,” Netanyahu said in a short statement, reiterating that he was “much more optimistic.”
“I can’t give details, but we will continue to do all we can to bring Naama home, and until then will continue to support her and her family,” he said.
Issachar’s situation has come up repeatedly in Israeli-Russian diplomatic contacts in recent days.
Netanyahu’s comments came a day after his call with the Russian leader and after Russian media reported that Putin was considering pardoning Issachar ahead of his visit to Israel. Israeli media speculated that Putin would announce her release during his visit, but would not bring her to Israel.
Channel 12 said on Saturday that Issachar “would not likely be on the plane with Putin.”
The TV channel reported that in exchange for the pardon, Israel has been asked to provide some sort of “backing” for the Russian narrative surrounding World War II and speculated that Netanyahu would make a remark in his speech.
A senior Israeli official said that “what Israel would provide would not hurt [Issachar], but is important to Putin,” according to the report.
Earlier this month, Israel released two Syrian prisoners in what was seen as a gesture toward Putin, the main geopolitical patron of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
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.