Russian panel approves pardon request from jailed Israeli; Putin set to decide

Kremlin says Russian president to rule ‘in near future’ on fate of jailed US-Israeli backpacker, who was sentenced to 7.5 years for marijuana found in her luggage

Israeli-American Naama Issachar, jailed for drug smuggling, attends her appeal hearing at the Moscow Regional Court on December 19, 2019. (Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP)
Israeli-American Naama Issachar, jailed for drug smuggling, attends her appeal hearing at the Moscow Regional Court on December 19, 2019. (Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP)

The Moscow commision for pardons on Monday unanimously approved a release plea from an Israeli-American woman imprisoned in Russia on drug charges, Russia’s Tass news agency reported.

Naama Issachar on Sunday formally filed her request for a pardon after Russian President Vladimir Putin promised her mother, Yaffa, that she would be released soon.

The commission’s decision is seen as a rubber stamp ahead of an expected announcement by Putin to pardon Issachar in the coming days.

“We received Naama’s plea for pardon today. She partially admits her guilt. But she pleads not guilty on smuggling charges. She had no such malicious intent. Hence, after considering her character reference from the prison, which is positive, the commission took a decision to satisfy this plea for pardon,” said Ekaterina Semyonova, the commission’s deputy chairperson, according to the Tass news agency.

The request will go to the Moscow region governor, Andrei Vorobyev, on Tuesday.

Issachar’s attorneys confirmed Sunday that she had formally submitted the pardon request to Putin.

Earlier Monday, the Kremlin said that Putin would make a decision “in the near future” on Issachar’s fate.

“We know that [Issachar’s pardon] appeal addressed to the head of state is ready,” said spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, according to the Tass news agency. “Currently, the necessary legal procedures are being carried out for the president to make a decision on this matter in the near future.”

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.

Issachar’s mother met last week with Putin. She said the Russian leader told her he would return her daughter home.

One of Issachar’s attorneys, Alexei Koblenko, told Haaretz that no Russian president has ever granted a pardon to a foreign-citizen convict.

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem on January 23, 2020. (Abir SULTAN / POOL / AFP)

“Naama decided to appeal to the president of the federation [Putin] to request her pardon and release, and she submitted [the request] in handwriting, as required by the prison authorities,” the attorneys said in a letter accompanying Issachar’s pardon request, according to Hebrew-language media.

“Naama, her family and her attorneys hope for a swift decision by the president of Russia, in keeping with his constitutional powers, for her pardon and release,” the attorneys wrote.

As Issachar was submitting her pardon request, her mother who boarded a plane to Russia Sunday morning, told Israeli media, “We still don’t know anything about the time frame. We hope for the best, and that it happens as fast as possible.”

Putin arrived 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.

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 has become a cause celebre in Israel, where her arrest and sentence are largely viewed as politically motivated. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised the family to work for her release and has expressed hopes for securing a pardon.

According to Hebrew media reports, Russia has 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.

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