Russian media on Wednesday released a photograph of Naama Issachar, an Israeli-American backpacker sentenced in Russia to seven-and-a-half-years in prison earlier this month for drug smuggling, and published an interview in which she describes her incarceration conditions.
According to a report on the Kremlin-aligned Russia Today network, Issachar met with human right activists on Tuesday, who said the 26-year-old backpacker was in good health, learning Russian and practicing yoga with her fellow inmates.
Representatives of the Issachar family in Israel, however, criticized the interview, telling Israel’s Channel 12 news that it appeared to be staged.
“They have an interest in making it look like she’s being treated well,” they were quoted as telling the Israeli broadcaster.
Issachar was arrested in April after some 10 grams of marijuana were found in her bag during a stopover in Moscow. She was flying from India to Israel, and at no point was to exit the airport in Russia.
Issachar told the activists that prison authorities were not able to coordinate a visit by a rabbi, and that she had requested to be allowed to receive phone calls from home, according to the report.
“We filed a petition with the court to let me call my mother and sister, but it has not yet been considered,” she was quoted as saying.
But Issachar said she was being treated well.
“They feed well, they give me the medicines that are needed. Even vitamins were given out,” she said.
Issachar said she was grateful for all the public support, and was hopeful it would help secure her release.
“I really want to get home. I hope that such publicity will help,” she said.
The visit was organized by the Public Observation Commission, an organization that oversees conditions in Russian prisons and was headed by RT journalist Daniil Lomakin, who joined the group just last week.
The visit came a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed a potential pardon for Issachar.
Monday’s telephone call between Netanyahu and Putin came on the prime minister’s 70th birthday.
An official statement from the Kremlin about the phone call did not mention Issachar, saying the two leaders discussed bilateral issues and Syria. However, an aide to Putin was quoted by Interfax confirming that Issachar’s case was discussed, and the Prime Minister’s Office later confirmed that the issue was talked about during the call.
Netanyahu last week sent a formal request to Putin asking that Issachar be pardoned. Moscow has said the Russian leader would consider the request.
Israeli officials reportedly believe Moscow is using Issachar, who also holds American citizenship, as leverage to ensure the return of Alexey Burkov, an IT specialist set to be extradited by Israel to the US, where he is wanted on embezzlement charges. Reports in the Hebrew media have indicated Israeli officials think Burkov may be tied to Russian intelligence.
Issachar’s family met Friday with Justice Minister Amir Ohana, asking him to hold off on extraditing Burkov. Boaz Ben Zur, a lawyer representing Issachar, told reporters after the meeting that Ohana agreed to consider the request and that the family would appeal to the Supreme Court, which in August green-lighted the extradition, if needed.
During a meeting Friday in Jerusalem with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Netanyahu discussed Issachar’s case and Burkov’s extradition, according to Hebrew media reports.
A Foreign Ministry official told the Ynet news site on Friday that Israel hopes Issachar will be released by the time of Putin’s planned visit to Jerusalem early next year.
Rallies were held in Tel Aviv and New York on Saturday to call for Issachar’s release.
Issachar’s family has expressed hope that the close ties between Netanyahu and Putin, who have met and spoken numerous times in recent years, could help secure Issachar’s release “in the coming days, after she was indicted for a crime she didn’t commit.”