A Russian court sentenced an Israeli-American woman to seven-and-a-half years in prison Friday after she was arrested by Russian authorities for marijuana possession, despite repeated attempts made by Israel’s Prime Minister demanding her release.
In April, 25-year old Naama Issachar was apprehended in a Moscow airport during a stopover for the connecting flight to Tel Aviv after spending three months abroad in India. She was notified nine grams of cannabis, wrapped in plastic and concealed in a toiletries bag, was found in the luggage she checked in and she was then taken into an interrogation room.
Russian authorities consider possession of more than 6 grams of cannabis a criminal offense, according to the Moscow Times newspaper.
She has since spent six months in a Russian jail and on Friday the woman with dual American-Israeli citizenship was sentenced Friday to nearly a decade-long prison sentence on charges of drug smuggling.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has issued a “personal” plea to President Vladimir Putin on Issachar’s behalf, requesting her sentence be commuted and the conditions of her confinement be improved.
The penalty “is disproportionate and does not fit the nature of the offense being attributed to Issachar,” Netanyahu argued.
“Netanyahu requested a commuting of the sentence and an easing of the terms of Naama’s detention. To our regret, the Russian prosecution has not yet accepted to these requests,” the statement said, according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office. “Israel will continue to make every effort with the Russian authorities in order to bring about Naama Issachar’s release and return her to her family.”
But Putin rejected the proposition.
Instead, Russia suggested a prisoner swap that would entail the release of Issachar in exchange for a Russian hacker, Alexei Borkov, who was detained in Israel and slated to be extradited to the United States for cyber security crimes.
Russia had repeatedly requested Borkov be released, but the decision was pending on a court review. Russian intelligence and security service reportedly began to use Issachar as a bargaining chip for Borkov’s release shortly after she was arrested.
Borkov, a Russian national from St. Petersburg, was arrested in 2015 after allegedly hacking credit databases of U.S. citizens and selling the data to other hackers. Complying to the request of the U.S., former Israeli Minister of Justice signed an order directing Borkov to be extradited to the U.S. and the Israeli Supreme Court approved the request in late August. Israel turned down the deal to avoid counteracting the United States’ appeal requesting Borkov’s extradition.
In September, five days ahead of Israel’s parliamentary elections, Netanyahu met with Putin in Sochi, and discussed the prisoner swap deal, with Netanyahu emphasizing the crime does not fit punishment in Issachar’s case. Netanyahu reportedly tried to negotiate more fair terms, explaining that the supreme court’s decision was irrevocable.
Minutes before Friday’s sentencing, Netanyahu declared any swap of Issachar for Burkov was out of the question.
“Israeli justice officials have made unequivocally clear that there is no possibility of preventing Burkov’s extradition after Israel’s Supreme Court ruled him extraditable,” a statement by Netanyahu’s office said.
Earlier this week, the two leaders reportedly discussed her case again during a phone call, but did not come to an agreement.
Israel condemned Russia Friday for the disproportionate ruling, warning Moscow is linking Issachar’s fate on the Russian hacker detained in Israel.
“Israel gravely views the verdict given today in Russia concerning Israeli citizen Naama Issachar. This is a substantial & disproportionate punishment for a young Israeli with no criminal record, who arrived in Moscow with the intention of catching a connecting flight on her way home to Israel,” the foreign ministry said in a statement. “Unfortunately, Russian authorities have not as yet heeded our requests to conduct the case appropriately in accordance to the circumstances of her arrest.”
U.S. officials have yet to comment on either case.
However, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro weighed in last week.
“I know little about this case other than what is reported here, but the Russians’ cruelty here is appalling. They should not treat Naama Issachar as a bargaining chip in an unrelated case,” he tweeted.
In an attempt to quell tension between the two countries, Netanyahu issued a statement after the verdict commending Putin’s efforts on the matter and called Issachar’s mother assuring her he will do anything to have her released from prison in Russia as soon as possible.
According to Yaffa Issachar, Netanyahu “said he was sorry about the heavy punishment Russia gave Naama.”
“I begged him to help me, he’s the only one who can do something, I don’t have anyone else to turn to,” Yaffa told Israel Nation News on Saturday. I don’t know how we’ll get over this, I don’t know what will happen if things pass to the Americans.
“Even though I’m American and Naama is also American, it’s easier for me to deal with the State of Israel than with the US. You see the embrace and the great love we’re receiving here, from the media, from the government, from the people. That won’t happen if it gets passed to the US.”
An online petition demanding Issachar be freed has currently accrued just 75 signatures.
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