Putin pardons Israeli-American backpacker jailed on drug charges

Putin pardons Israeli-American backpacker jailed on drug charges

Kremlin announces release of Naama Issachar shortly before Netanyahu travels to Moscow; mother: ‘Right now all I want is to hug my daughter Naama’

Naama Issachar gestures during an appeal hearings in a courtroom in Moscow, Russia, December 19, 2019. (AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr.)
Naama Issachar gestures during an appeal hearings in a courtroom in Moscow, Russia, December 19, 2019. (AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr.)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has pardoned an Israeli-American woman jailed in Russia on drug charges, the Kremlin said Wednesday.

The Kremlin said a presidential decree pardoning Naama Issachar on “humanitarian principles” was effective immediately.

“This is the moment I waited for almost a year,” Issachar’s mother Yaffa said in response to the Kremlin announcement. “Right now all I want is to hug my daughter Naama.”

She thanked Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was set to takeoff for Moscow on Wednesday from Washington.

Netanyahu thanked “my friend” Putin for her pardoning her and said he was looking forward to meeting the Russian leader on Thursday.

Foreign Minister Israel Katz also hailed Issachar’s release.

“I, like all Israeli residents, are delighted by the joy of the mother Yaffa and the Issachar family on Naama’s return home,” Katz said in a statement.

Earlier, an Israeli official said Issachar’s release was the result of a Russian goodwill gesture toward the United States, stressing that Israel did not give Moscow anything in return.

“There was no deal with Russia. Naama’s release was done as a gesture by President [Vladimir] Putin to the US,” a senior official in an inter-ministerial committee dealing with the case told reporters in Netanyahu’s entourage.

Jerusalem’s Old City and Temple Mount from the Russian Orthodox Church on the Mount of Olives (undated) (©DEIAHL, Jerusalem)

According to Hebrew media reports, Russia had asked Israel to transfer a piece of Russian Orthodox Church property near the Old City of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre to the Kremlin, as a goodwill gesture ahead of Issachar’s release.

Russia has been demanding Israel hand over rights to Alexander’s Courtyard for over a decade, but Justice Ministry officials along with two senior Likud lawmakers who are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Yuli Edelstein and Ze’ev Elkin, have opposed the measure.

Last week, a Russian national whose extradition from Israel to the US was believed to be linked to Isaachar’s fate, pleaded guilty to running a website that helped people commit more than $20 million in credit card fraud. Aleksey Burkov, 29, of St. Petersburg, Russia, entered the plea to charges including fraud and money laundering in a federal court in Virginia.

The government dealt with Issachar’s case not only because of the state’s responsibility toward all its citizens but also out of a desire to solve a problem “that could hurt the sensitive relations between Russia and Israel,” the official added, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin cut the ribbon to unveil the Memorial Candle monument in Jerusalem on January 23, 2020 to commemorate the people of Leningrad during the Second World War Nazi siege on the city. (Amit Shabi/Pool/AFP)

Securing Issachar’s release could boost Netanyahu’s popularity ahead of the March 2 elections, the third in less than a year after the prime minister failed to form a government in the previous two rounds of voting. The announcement Tuesday by the Prime Minister’s Office of the trip to Russia came less than an hour after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit filed an indictment against Netanyahu for charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust with the Jerusalem District Court.

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 in 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.

On Tuesday, Moscow regional governor Andrei Vorobyev signed her pardon request, the final step necessary before the matter could be taken up by Putin.

Putin was in Israel last Thursday for a one-day visit to attend the World Holocaust Forum, which this year marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, smile as Yaffa Issachar, second left, the mother of Naama Issachar, who is imprisoned in Russia, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, in Jerusalem on January 23, 2020, ahead of the World Holocaust Forum. (Heidi Levine/Pool/AFP)

During his visit, Putin met Yaffa Issachar and said in a press statement after the meeting that “everything will be all right.” He said that it was clear to him from meeting Yaffa Issachar that her daughter comes from a “good, decent family.”

Yaffa Issachar told Israeli reporters then that she was smiling after the Jerusalem meeting because “Putin told me: ‘I’ll bring the girl home.’ Really. Let’s wait and see, there is no date for the release.”

Issachar had become a cause célèbre in Israel, where her arrest and sentence were largely viewed as politically motivated. Netanyahu promised the family to work for her release and has expressed hopes for securing a pardon.

AP contributed to this report.

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