Putin Pardons Israeli Held in Russia for Drug Charges as Netanyahu Departs for Moscow

Israeli official says the release of Issachar, who has been held in Russia since April, will be made 'as a gesture by President Vladimir Putin to Netanyahu,' and not as part of a diplomatic deal

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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Russian Human Rights Commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova visits Naama Issachar in jail, January 23, 2020.
Russian Human Rights Commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova visits Naama Issachar in jail, January 23, 2020.Credit: FSIN
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

Russian President Vladmir Putin signed on Wednesday the pardon request of a young Israeli-American woman imprisoned in Russia for 7.5 years over drug charges, the Kremlin said in a statement.

Naama Issachar, 26, was arrested in April for drug smuggling after a small amount of hashish was found in her luggage during a layover in a Moscow airport.

Earlier a senior inter-ministerial team official said Israel did not sign a deal with Russia to release Issachar. According to the official, the release of Issachar, who has been held in Russia since April, was made "as a gesture by President Vladimir Putin to Netanyahu."

Putin signed the pardon just as Netanyahu is scheduled to take off for Moscow Wednesday, and is expected to discuss Issachar's release with him.

Netanyahu thanked his "friend, President Putin, for granting Naama Issachar a pardon. I look forward to our meeting tomorrow, in which we'll discuss the Deal of the Century and other regional developments."

The official added that the state was willing to resolve a case that could hurt the sensitive relationship between Israel and Russia, in light of the state's opinion on another matter which did not act in her favor. He said that Israel's gestures towards Russia were to tighten relations between the countries, even in light of other issues not related to Issachar.

President Reuven Rivlin expressed joy over Putin's decision to pardon Issachar. "I'm so happy to get the news about Naama. I would like to thank Putin for the compassion and wisdom he showed by taking the decision to pardon Naama."

The president also praised Netanyahu for his "important actions to free Naama," while congratulating the Issachar family.   

Yaffa Issachar, Naama's mother, said that "I've been waiting for this moment for over a year, I've been through a long journey, which I don't wish on anyone. All I want now is to hug my daughter Naama.  

"I thank Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the bottom of my heart for his tenacity and great efforts he invested [in talks] with the Russian administration. I would also like to thank Russian President Vladimir Putin for showing compassion and allowed my daughter to return to Israel," Yaffa Issachar said.

Yaffa met with Putin last week. Putin said after the meeting that “everything will be okay.” Netanyahu also attended the meeting, and his aides said there had been “significant progress” in the negotiations for her release.

Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz congratulated Netanyahu for his "relentless efforts to bring back Naama while using his close ties with President Putin and the good relations between the two countries."   

Katz also added that in his meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, he had "brought up the issue of releasing Naama and bettering her conditions until she's freed. I would like to thank to the Foreign Ministry employees for maintaining a close contact with Naama and her family during the time of her imprisonment and contributing to the efforts to release her."  

Aleksey Dobrynin, one of the lawyers representing Issachar's, told Haaretz that he believes Naama will be released from prison on Thursday, and will probably board Netanyahu's plane en route to Israel.

"At the moment she's a free person but we don't know exactly when she'll be released. It can happen as soon as tonight but the prison is now officially closed and will only open in the morning. I believe Naama has been informed about the pardon, as she has a television in her prison cell and she has been following developments.      

On Monday, Issachar's lawyers announced that Russia had approved Issachar's pardon request, and the district governor had submitted it to Russian President Vladimir Putin's Bureau for a final signature of the president. A Kremlin spokesperson said that Putin will soon decide whether to pardon Issachar.

A member of Issachar’s legal team, Alexei Kovalenko, told Haaretz that pardons are rarely granted in Russia. “To date, the Russian president has never granted a pardon to a foreign national,” he said. “Still, the whole process so far has been extremely unusual, so anything could happen,"

In November, Russian hacker Aleksey Burkov was extradited to the United States on the instruction of Justice Minister Amir Ohana.

The Russian Embassy in Israel condemned the High Court’s rejection of Burkov’s petition against his extradition, noting that the “step did not contribute” to ties between Jerusalem and Moscow.

In December Israeli sources confirmed that Russia had pressured Israel to release Burkov in exchange for Issachar's release.