President Rivlin Seeks Pardon From Putin for Israeli Held in Russia on Drug Charges

Naama Issachar was arrested with hashish and handed a 'disproportionate' seven-and-a-half-year sentence, which sources say intended to pressure Israel to release hacker set to be extradited to the U.S.

Naama Issachar and her mother Yaffa, undated
Courtesy of the family

President Reuven Rivlin appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin Sunday to pardon an Israeli sentenced to seven and a half years in prison in Russia for hashish possession.  

"As a friend of the Jewish People and the State of Israel, I am writing to you concerning Naama Issachar," wrote Rivlin in a letter to Putin. "Naama made a grave mistake and has admitted her crime, but in the case of a young woman with no criminal record, the severe sentence handed down will have a deeply destructive impact on her life."

The letter continued, "Because of the particular and individual circumstances" of the case, "I am appealing to your mercy and compassion with a request for your personal intervention to grant her an extraordinary pardon.”

Issachar was arrested in April with 9.6 grams of hashish in her backpack while she was on a stopover in the Moscow airport, en route from India to Israel. She was detained in Khimki prison, outside Moscow, with authorities refusing multiple attempts by her family to pay for her bail.

On Friday, a Russian court handed Issachar a seven-and-a-half-year sentence, nearly the maximum eight years she was facing, against which the defense is expected to appeal. Israeli sources familiar with the case said Israel's continued stance on the case of a Russia hacker held in Israel might mean Russian authorities may agree to a reduced sentence.

Israel's Foreign Ministry "gravely views the verdict," a statement said, criticizing the “substantial and disproportionate” sentence handed to “a young Israeli woman with no criminal record.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said moments after news of the ruling broke that the prime minister “highly appreciates President Putin’s willingness to dedicate time to the matter and hopes the efforts will bear fruit.”

But Issachar’s family said they’re still “shocked by how Russia decided to kidnap Naama and hold her hostage. She’s not a criminal.”

Israeli sources confirmed Friday that Russia attempted to pressure Israel into releasing Aleksey Burkov, a Russian hacker who is to be extradited to the United States, in exchange for Issachar. Burkov, an IT specialist, was arrested in Israel in 2015 for extradition to the United States on charges related to widespread credit card fraud. But Issachar's fate seems to be the last chapter in a behind-the-scenes extradition battle between Moscow and Washington that points to something else than identity theft. 

Following media reports in Israel and Russia, Netanyahu confirmed he discussed the matter with Putin during their meeting in Sochi a month ago and in a phone call last week, where he argued Issachar is being treated unfairly by the Russian authorities and stressed that there is no legal way to stop Burkov’s extradition.

Netanyahu’s office said Friday in a statement that he was personally involved in the issue, stressing that Israeli judicial officials “have made it unequivocally clear that Burkov’s extradition cannot be prevented” after the High Court of Justice’s ruling in the case.