In April, Naama Issachar disembarked at a Moscow airport after traveling through India and Southeast Asia. She did not intend to stay in Russia for more than a few hours. As she walked through the airport to board a flight to Israel, Russian police arrested her and discovered 9 grams (0.3 oz) of marijuana in her luggage.
On October 11, a Russian court sentenced Issachar to serve seven and a half years in prison. After her arrest, prosecutors initially charged her with possessing marijuana, an illegal drug in Russia. At her first trial in April, Issachar confessed to the possession charge. “I am aware that I acted irresponsibly before my flight,” she told a Russian judge. “I should have been aware of all of the items I have on my person.” However, since she had brought marijuana into the country, the prosecutors went on to accuse her of the more serious crime of drug smuggling. At her second trial, Issachar refused to plead guilty to the new charge, insisting that she had only made a mistake and had not intended to transport drugs. Nevertheless, the court convicted her for drug smuggling.
Naama Issachar, 26, is a dual citizen of Israel and the United States. She was born in New Jersey, but she has lived in Israel since she was 16 years old. Her family believes that she does not deserve her sentence, and her mother Yaffa claims that she is deteriorating in Russian prison. “She doesn’t have normal conditions that other prisoners have. She’s not receiving letters. She won’t last much longer,” her mother recently lamented in an interview.
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Naama Issachar is now at the center of a diplomatic row between Israel, Russia, and the United States. According to her family, Russia is harshly punishing her because the Russian government wants to leverage her for the extradition of Aleksey Burkov, a Russian citizen currently imprisoned in Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, appears to agree with the Issachar family. When he discussed the case with Russian President Vladimir Putin in September, he requested clemency for Naama Issachar and declined to consider a prisoner exchange.
Israel has delivered a clear message: The punishment being demanded by the Russian prosecutor is disproportionate and does not fit the nature of the offense being attributed to Issachar. Prime Minister 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 these requests.
Aleksey Burkov faces charges in the United States for credit card fraud and illegal hacking. As a result, the United States has requested his extradition from Israel. Since Burkov is a Russian who is under suspicion of committing crimes in his own country, the Russian government has also requested his extradition. The Israeli Supreme Court approved the American request and the Ministry of Justice will soon decide whether to send Burkov to the United States or keep him in prison. However, the Ministry of Justice has dismissed the Russian request because Russian prosecutors have not yet filed charges against Burkov.
For now, Naama Issachar remains in Russia. Unless Israel convinces Russia to pardon her and send her back home, she will spend close to a decade behind bars for 9 grams of cannabis. Her sister, Liad Gold, says that her family will continue to pressure the Israeli government to save her and will not rest until she is free.
[UPDATE: On January 30, 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin pardoned Naama Issachar as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow to discuss an American peace proposal for the Middle East. Israeli officials described the pardon as a diplomatic gesture and denied that Israel had exchanged anything with Russia in exchange for Issachar’s release. In November 2019, Israel extradited Aleksey Burkov to the United States against Russian objections. Issachar met her mother Yaffa, Netanyahu, and his wife Sara in a Moscow airport and flew home to Israel on the Prime Minister’s plane.]
Nathan Yerby is a writer and researcher. He is a graduate of the University of Central Florida.
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