Israeli sources confirmed on Friday that Russia recently pressured Israel to release Aleksey Burkov, a Russian hacker who is to be extradited to the U.S., in exchange for the release of an Israeli-American woman, Naama Issachar, who was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison on drug-related charges.
IT specialist Burkov 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, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed he discussed the matter with President Vladimir 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 can not be prevented” after the High Court of Justice’s ruling in the case.
Earlier on Friday, a source told Haaretz that a willingness to manage the relationship with the United States had also been instrumental in Israel's decision to reject the swap.
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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 years 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 Burkov case 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.”
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.”
Issachar has both Israeli and American citizenship, and is receiving consular assistance from the two embassies. Israeli officials believe Issachar's dual citizenship is among the reasons she was targeted by the Russians: The deal proffered by Russia would leave Washington faced with a choice between aiding Issachar and extraditing Burkov.
According to the Russian RT website, considered to be close to the Kremlin, the "prisoner swap" idea originated with Aleksey Burkov's relatives.
“I asked [Issachar’s relatives] to talk to Israeli diplomats, but as far as I understand, they assured the family there will be no swap – they just have to quietly wait for the ruling,” a friend of Burkov’s who lives in Israel told RT.
The RT report says his relatives contacted Russian diplomats to promote the swap. The family reportedly even turned to the Russian foreign ministry in Moscow to advance the deal.
“Authorities in Israel told me that the deal is not on the table,” Issachar’s mother, Yaffa, told Haaretz. People working for Issachar’s release said they know very little about the proposed deal and every official they tried to speak to about it denied the report, or ignored it. “If it’s true, it is unthinkable that she will be held as a hostage,” one of them said.
Sources close to Issachar’s family said they began receiving emails from Burkov’s family in recent weeks, in which they were told Issachar would not be released until a solution is found for Burkov.
Israeli officials told Issachar’s family that they do not know anything about the matter.
Credit card fraud, or perhaps more
The case of Aleksey Burkov is unclear at best - it has generated little information or public interest, despite two of the world's superpowers flexing their diplomatic muscle to get their hands on the IT expert.
According to a U.S. Secret Service investigation, Burkov ran a website used for the sale of credit card information. In 2015, he was indicted in Virginia on four counts of fraud, and a year later charges of identity theft, money laundering and illegally accessing a computer were added.
The evidence and sworn statements filed said that Burkov offered details of over 150,000 credit cards for sale. The investigators posed as potential buyers and managed to track Burkov after he posted a picture of himself from a vacation in Thailand, from where he flew to Israel.
Burkov was detained at Ben-Gurion International Airport in December 2015. A lawyer from the Public Defender’s Office informed the Russian Embassy in Israel of his arrest, and the embassy informed Burkov’s family.
The Russian man apparently confessed to running the website, according to an agent's testimony. His alleged goal was to allow professional internet criminals to cooperate and help each other, while evading law enforcement authorities and illegally selling credit and debit card data, said one of the agents in his affidavit to the court.
Burkov’s lawyer told RT: “Israeli interrogators told Burkov that the U.S. issued an Interpol warrant for him and are seeking extradition for his alleged involvement in cyber attacks and computer network fraud. Burkov has nothing to do with these crimes.” Burkov claims he was “hijacked” and arrested as he was leaving Israel, calling it a “standard US scheme,” said RT.
A panel of three Israeli High Court justices eventually approved Burkov’s extradition to the United States based on a request from the FBI, for computer crimes and credit card fraud. Burkov was called “anonymous” in the ruling and has been detained in Israel based on the American extradition request for almost four years.
According to Burkov, Israel received an extradition request from Russia too – which Burkov said he did not object to, but the Israeli court ruled that this could not constitute a case to delay his extradition to the United States.
Three years ago, when then-Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked was visiting Moscow, she met with the country's prosecutor general, who asked her to send Burkov to Russia. Shaked responded that at that stage, official extradition proceedings to the United States were being conducted – because the Americans were the first to submit an official extradition request.
Israeli officials involved in the matter said the Russians made it clear they looked at the issue as one of great importance. It is reasonable to assume that Burkov is not just another internet criminal, but someone who the Russian government is making an exceptional effort to keep away from American law enforcement.