Israeli Held in Belarus Describes 'Hellish Torments' in Prison

Maya Reiten Stoll, a lawyer and single mother of two, was arrested last month while on a business trip for possession of medical cannabis

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President Alexander Lukashenko at a meeting with military officials in Minsk, in November.
President Alexander Lukashenko at a meeting with military officials in Minsk, in November.Credit: Nikolay Petrov / AP

An Israeli lawyer jailed in Belarus on drug possession charges has pleaded for Israeli authorities to bring her home, complaining that she is undergoing “hellish torments” while “cut off from all connection to the world outside.”

In a letter published in the Hebrew-language Maariv daily, Maya Reiten Stoll, a single mother of two who was arrested late last month while on a business trip, wrote that “every day here is like the passage of a whole year for me. The food here is not kosher and I have not touched it.”

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In a statement after her arrest, Stoll’s attorneys stated that they were concerned that “if she is not released immediately, she will be sent to prison for years.” She had been carrying 2.5 grams (0.09 oz) of cannabis, for which she has a license in Israel due to health issues. Her attorneys said that the penalty in Belarus for the offense ranges from three to seven years in prison.

In her letter, Stoll complained that “the English language is not spoken here” and that the very fact of her detainment “harms my mental dignity.”

"I am suffering here, I am going through hellish torments, I am driven by worries for my children and my beloved parents who are not young. I am cut off from all connection to the outside world,” she wrote.

Stoll’s incarceration in Belarus comes just under two years after neighboring Russia freed Naama Issachar, an Israeli-American woman also jailed over drug charges. She had been sentenced for seven and a half years in prison in 2019 but was granted a pardon by Russian President Vladimir Putin in January 2020 after serving ten months.

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

Several years earlier, in December 2016, Israeli blogger Alexander Lapshin, who also holds Russian and Ukrainian citizenship, was arrested in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, at the request of Azerbaijani authorities, who demanded his extradition for having entered the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

He was subsequently extradited to Azerbaijan, where he was sentenced to a three-year prison term before being pardoned and returned to Israel.

While many western countries have shunned Belarus following the violent suppression of pro-democracy protests in the wake of a 2020 electoral contest widely seen as fraudulent, Israel has continued to seek warm relations with the government of President Alexander Lukashenko.

This July, then-President Reuven Rivlin congratulated the authoritarian leader on the occasion of his country’s Independence Day, sending him "good wishes" for his "personal well-being and for the ongoing progress and prosperity of your country and its people.”

Asked about the letter, an Israeli government source told Haaretz at the time that "Israel shows sensitivity to the well-being of the Jewish community In Belarus and therefore prefers not to confront the Lukashenko administration.“

Several days later, Lukashenko made waves internationally when he said that no one dares to deny the Holocaust because the Jews have managed to make "the whole world bow to them.”

Several weeks later, a Belarusian news outlet with ties to Lukashenko accused the leaders of several Jewish communal organizations of supporting anti-government protests, intimating that they were in the pay of foreign actors.

Speaking to Haaretz at the time, Alexander Friedman, a historian at Humboldt University of Berlin, said that “the topic of Jews and the Holocaust was systematically used by state propaganda” after the outbreak of anti-regime protests late last year and the outlet in question “regularly publishes anti-Semitic articles.”

“The purpose of the article is to intimidate the Jewish community, and possibly the preparation of purges in Jewish organizations in Belarus," Friedman said. "The Lukashenko regime wants to strengthen its control over Jewish organizations, which are especially suspicious because of their contacts and connections in the West.”