A Russian court rejected Thursday the appeal of an Israeli woman jailed in the country following her conviction of drug possession, in a high-profile case that has strained relations between the two countries.
Naama Issachar, 25, is serving a seven-and-a-half-year prison term for possession of 9.6 grams of hashish while changing planes at a Russian airport. Her lawyers said they were waiting to receive the full verdict before deciding on their next steps. They still have two chances to file an appeal: with an appellate court, and with Russia's Supreme Court.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Issaachar's mother after news of the verdict, telling her that he would not give up on securing her release. "I will continue to work in every way to bring Naama home," he said.
Reacting to the verdict, Issachar's family said they were angry, referred to the trial as a "farce," and called on Netanyahu to fulfill his promise to get her released. "Naama does not need to carry all the interests and disagreements between Israel and Russia on her shoulders," the family said. "We ask the prime minister, fulfill your commitments. Don't permit a situation in which Putin lands in Israel for a state ceremony without Naama coming home." Issachar's lawyers meanwhile said the trial had been unfair and called the verdict "strange."
Seeking to secure Issachar's release, the Foreign Ministry is placing its hopes on diplomatic channels. Israel has submitted an official request to pardon her, and diplomatic sources told Haaretz that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Israel, which is slated for next month, is linked to the request. Netanyahu said at an election campaign event on Tuesday that he is “bringing Naama Issachar home.” But on Wednesday, people close to the prime minister clarified that he "meant to say that he was committed to bringing her home, it will take time."
Speaking through a translator on Thursday, Issachar testified that the hashish did not belong to her and that she had not put it in her bag. She said she had told her interrogators that the drugs did not belong to her, but that they ignored her statement, provided without a translator or lawyer. She also said that she was pressured to sign a Russian-language document in which she only wrote where she had come from.
Issachar told the court that she was never asked whether the drugs were hers and that she was not allowed to finish when she tried to say she had nothing to do with them.
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According to Issachar, she had not intended to enter Russia and was stopped at the gate for her flight to Israel. When she saw drugs had been found in her bag, she assumed that was enough for her to be found guilty, as she had never visited Russia and was unfamiliar with its laws, she said. However, she said, she realized upon reading the relevant law that she was not in fact guilty as the drugs did not belong to her and she did not intend to smuggle them.
Last week, Issachar's hearing – which was held without her being in the courtroom – was postponed after she asked the judges to be present during the procedure to grant her the right to a fair trial.
Her attorneys asked the court to acquit her, claiming she had not committed any crime, that the legal process was flawed and violated her rights and that her sentence was extremely harsh in light of the offences attributed to her.
At a press conference this week, the lawyers said “the game isn’t fixed” and expressed faith in the Russian legal system and its ability to act independently. The affair has received extensive media coverage, both in Israel and in Russia.
Issachar’s family members are expected to attend the court session and have expressed confidence that she will be released from prison after having now served eight months. Her sister, Liad Goldberg, met with Naama this week in prison, and said she “is helpless, this last week caused her despair.”
Goldberg added that Naama had said her life has been completely changed and that she would bear a black stain forever. Yaffa Issachar, Naama’s mother, wrote to Netanyahu this week saying she was framed from the very beginning. “She was singled out as a political asset because she is an Israeli citizen,” Yaffa wrote.
In addition to the legal procedure, Israel's Foreign Ministry hopes that the diplomatic channel will bear fruit if the court decides not to release Issachar.
On Thursday, Israel and Russia held previously scheduled talks about consular issues at the foreign ministry in Jerusalem. The talks came after dozens of Israeli tourists and businessmen were delayed for several hours at Moscow airport's passport control on Wednesday, prompting the Israel's Foreign Ministry to announce it was looking into the matter.
The talks were described as productive and covered the both the issue of delayed Israeli tourists in Moscow and of illegal migration from Russia into Israel. Israeli representatives expressed hopes that Naama Issachar be released soon.