Russian hacker at heart of Naama Issachar case moved to protective custody
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Russian hacker at heart of Naama Issachar case moved to protective custody

Prisons Service says it seeks to ensure ‘well-being’ of Aleksey Burkov, whose pending extradition to US is believed behind tough sentence for Israeli woman held by Moscow

Aleksey Burkov during a court hearing in Israel (Channel 13 news)
Aleksey Burkov during a court hearing in Israel (Channel 13 news)

A Russian hacker at the center of a dispute over Moscow’s sentencing of an Israeli woman to prison for drug offenses was placed under tighter observation at the detention facility where he is being held, the Israel Prisons Service said Tuesday.

Aleksey Burkov, an IT specialist who was arrested in Israel in 2015 at the request of Interpol, 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.

Israel reportedly turned down requests to release Burkov to Russia in exchange for Naama Issachar, an Israeli who was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison last week over a small amount of marijuana found in her bag during a stopover in Moscow.

The prisons service said it was moving Burkov to a monitored wing at Nitzan Prison in Ramle to “ensure his well-being” and that the decision was made after consultations with officials from “relevant government ministries.”

It also said there was no indication other prisoners were planning to harm Burkov or that he was planning on harming himself, stressing that the move was a precautionary measure in light of recent reports on the detainee, according to the Haaretz daily.

Israeli officials’ growing conviction that Issachar was being held as part of a pressure campaign to bring about the release of Burkov has given rise to the question of why Moscow would be so interested in his fate.

His extradition to the US was approved by Israel’s Supreme Court in August, but Russia, too, has made an extradition request, and Moscow officials have repeatedly pressed Israel to send him home.

Israeli-American Naama Issachar, 26, was sentenced to 7.5 years in Russia over drug smuggling (Courtesy)

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. It said Burkov could be tied to Russia’s efforts to influence the American election process.

But Burkov, in an interview with Channel 13, denied any such involvement.

Issachar, 26, was arrested in Moscow in April while returning from a trip to India. A small quantity of marijuana, around 10 grams, was sniffed out by police dogs as her suitcase was being transferred by airport staff to her connecting flight from Moscow to Tel Aviv.

Russian prosecutors said 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.

On Sunday, the Kan public broadcaster reported that a short while after Burkov’s extradition was green-lighted by the Supreme Court, Issachar’s privileges were significantly curtailed — indicating that while she hadn’t originally been arrested as a bargaining chip, she had become one later.

A confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday the premier will submit an official request to Russian President Vladimir Putin for Issachar’s release. President Reuven Rivlin sent an appeal to Putin on Sunday seeking a pardon for Issachar.

On Monday, a spokesman for the Kremlin said Putin would consider Israel’s requests to issue a pardon for Issachar once it was submitted through the proper channels.

Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomes his Israeli counterpart Reuven Rivlin during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, on March 16, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / POOL / MAXIM SHIPENKOV)

The Issachar family is appealing her sentence. Her lawyer formally submitted a notification of appeal on Monday, and will present arguments later in the week. But Israeli officials have said they believe the appeal is a long shot, since Issachar’s jailing seems to be a political matter involving the expected extradition of Burkov.

Issachar doesn’t deny that there were some 10 grams of marijuana in her bag, but has claimed she had no intention of having it pass through Russian border control and therefore is not a smuggler. She would not have had access to the illicit substance before arriving back in Israel.

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